Review: ‘The Summer Club’ at Venice Island Performing Arts Center

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In his banter with the audience during last night’s musical homage to Swing, Big Bands, and ‘The Rat Pack’ at Manayunk’s Venice Island Performing Arts Center, Jeff Coon, Executive Director and creative force behind The Summer Club, referred to the vintage entertainment as “good music and a good night out.” Coon, a Barrymore Award winner and multiple-time nominee, is not only a master of acting and singing, he’s also a master of understatement. Though we can all admire his humility, this was not just “good,” Jeff, but absolutely phenomenal music, and a spectacular night out.

Jeff Coon. Photo by Sam Nagel.

Jeff Coon. Photo by Sam Nagel.

The consummately knowledgeable and talented Music Director Larry Lees led a blockbuster seventeen-piece live orchestra through authentic arrangements of more than 20 hit songs in the retro style, with a big sound that not only filled, but brought down the house, and provided superb accompaniment for the top-notch crooners. Joining Coon on stage were Ben Dibble, JP Dunphy, Michael O’Brien, and host Fran Prisco (who also serves as the The Summer Club’s Creative Director), along with guest artist Krissy Fraelich. Clothed in elegant white dinner jackets (and a tasteful cocktail dress for Fraelich), all delivered an unsurpassed combination of flawless vocals with smooth stylings and engaging repartee, in an unforgettable show that evoked the look and feel of the most sophisticated nightclubs of the era.

Songs popularized by Frank Sinatra took center stage, as “The Boys” swayed, snapped their fingers, and tapped their feet to the rhythms. Renditions of “Summer Wind” and “You Make Me Feel so Young” by Dibble, “Almost Like Being In Love” and “It Had to Be You” by Dunphy, “Beyond the Sea” by O’Brien, and “I’ve Got You under My Skin” by Coon were irresistibly suave and debonair, and Prisco’s “New York, New York” and “That’s Life” – the latter performed with jacket off and bow tie loosened – effectively captured the self-assured swagger of ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ himself. All five joined in on the carefree classics “Come Fly with Me,” “Standing on the Corner,” “L-O-V-E,” and “My Kind of Town” (here switched from Chicago to Philadelphia, and pronounced with a local accent). Numbers by Fraelich included splendid interpretations of Judy Garland’s iconic “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and the lesser-known “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning.”

Fran Prisco, Jeff Coon, JP Dunphy, and Michael O’Brien, with Larry Lees and the orchestra. Photo by Sam Nagel.

Fran Prisco, Jeff Coon, JP Dunphy, and Michael O’Brien, with Larry Lees and the orchestra. Photo by Sam Nagel.

The always amusing Prisco also channeled a happily intoxicated and slightly stumbling Dean Martin in “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head,” and filling in at the last minute for recurring guest comic Erin Maguire (who had been scheduled to appear but was detained at an earlier gig), Mark Riccadonna provided laughs with a stand-up routine that somehow linked turtle sex to his wife and himself, and gave us an amusing inside look at his life as the father of two young sons. Though out-of-time with the mid-century musical style, the segment was funny and well-played. Throughout the evening, the performers all laughed, joked, and clearly enjoyed themselves and each other, with a camaraderie reminiscent of Sinatra and his inner circle of friends in ‘The Rat Pack’ of the ‘60s. Dunphy reminded us in the spirit of the evening that “Everything Old Is New Again” and O’Brien summed it up with an impassioned version of “Feelin’ Good.” Each and every song was a highlight of the consistently stellar show.

If you’re an aficionado of the period, you will delight to the music you remember, brought back to life by these terrific performers; if you’re not yet a fan, go, and they’re sure to make you one. You can swing with The Summer Club at more than a dozen upcoming appearances this year through December, playing in venues throughout the greater Philadelphia area. From Avalon, NJ, to Lancaster and West Chester, PA, and returning regularly to Manayunk, each show is unique, and the roster of songs, singers, and special guests changes with every date. So if you missed this one-night-only performance, or if, like me, you can’t get enough and want to hear more, check out their full 2017 line-up. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, The Summer Club is outstanding entertainment for all seasons. And that’s not just good; that’s a rave.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.

The Summer Club plays six more dates through Monday, December 18, 2017, at Venice Island Performing Arts Center – 7 Lock Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (610) 322-2102, or purchase them online.

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