Review: ‘The Summer Club: 3rd Anniversary Special’ at Venice Island Performing Arts Center

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Back at Manayunk’s Venice Island Performing Arts Center, The Summer Club celebrated its third anniversary on a very hot night with an even hotter performance. With yesterday’s total breakdown of the Center’s air conditioning and the sweltering conditions on-, off-, and back-stage, electric fans were set up, bottled water was distributed to everyone in attendance, the show went on, and no one in the audience complained. Why would we? From the moment the music began, we forgot about the heat and humidity and were transported back to the cool era of Swing by the sensational sounds of this world-class big band and crooners.

Creative Director Fran Prisco served as the evening’s host, and had a field day cracking extemporaneous jokes about the disagreeable temperature, with the rest of the ensemble occasionally joining in on the scorching fun. The performers’ usual sartorial elegance was quickly abandoned, as the men emerged with their bow ties untied, doffed their white dinner jackets, and, by the end of the night, a couple of them even returned from the dressing room in shorts. Nothing could dampen the spirit of the show; it all just added to The Clubbers’ comfortable connection with the audience and obvious feeling of fraternity among them (underscored in their entertaining duets on “Me and My Shadow” and “You’re Nothing without Me”).

Fran Prisco, Jeff Coon, Michael O’Brien, and Shavey Brown, with Larry Lees and orchestra. Photo courtesy of The Summer Club.

Fran Prisco, Jeff Coon, Michael O’Brien, and Shavey Brown, with Larry Lees and orchestra. Photo courtesy of The Summer Club.

Jeff Coon, Founder and Executive Director of the nightclub-style cabaret, intermittently reminisced about the show’s history and evolution since 2014, describing its signature retro style (“the Rat Pack meets The Ed Sullivan Show”), recounting the vintage songs that were part of its first few performances, and discussing some of the popular hits of the past that were later added – all included in the spectacular one-night Anniversary Special. Music Director Larry Lees remained cool as a cucumber, conducting the band through his stellar orchestrations of 23 old-time favorites, featuring bang-up instrumental solos by Walter Palmer and sung with panache by Coon, Prisco, Michael O’Brien, Shavey Brown, and guest artist Rachel Brennan (delivering a woman’s perspective to her solos on “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “The Man that Got Away”). All are accomplished actors as well as singers, so along with their astonishing vocal skills, each brought heartfelt emotion and apropos physical expression to the familiar lyrics.

Standouts in the consistently outstanding show were Prisco’s powerhouse leads on “Goody Goody” and “I’ve Got You under My Skin;” Brown’s jazzy stylings of “Too Close For Comfort” and “It Had to Be You” (getting up close and personal with a lucky front-row member of the audience); Coon’s blockbuster “Birth of the Blues;” and the full company’s upbeat invitation to “Come Fly with Me,” which no one could resist. And Michael O’Brien impressed even his colleagues with “Live Till I Die” (the song that first brought him to The Summer Club as a fill-in for Prisco) and his full-out bluesy interpretation of “Feelin’ Good” (Coon’s personal favorite in the show), and melted hearts with his smooth and seductive talents on “Beyond the Sea” and “The Way You Look Tonight” (they surely would’ve called him a “dreamboat” in the day; he nailed it).

Michael O’Brien. Photo by Sam Nagel.

Michael O’Brien. Photo by Sam Nagel.

The razor-sharp wit of comic Mike Burton was a perfect fit with the period style of the music, performing a stand-up routine that recalled the insult comedy of Don Rickles (a favorite of Sinatra and the Rat Pack). Taking side-splitting jibes at everything from his wife’s nagging and the venue’s parking to the highways of Pennsylvania and the resorts of the Poconos, Burton also directly assaulted the audience (and by “the audience” I mean me) with hilarious ad-libs that kept everyone in stitches, including The Summer Clubbers, who subsequently offered a tongue-in-cheek reminder that it wasn’t them, just him, hurling all the verbal abuse at a reviewer. I can honestly say I’ve never had anyone begging for a bad review like Burton did! Sorry to disappoint, Mike, but it’s five stars from me – you were absolutely hysterical.

This was the second show I attended this summer by these phenomenal artists. As promised in the last one, the set list, singers, and special guests change with every performance, so if you, too, have seen them before, you can see them again, and again, and again, and each time will be different (not that I would mind seeing the exact same one again, and again, and again; yes, they’re that good). The Summer Club returns to Venice Island with another unique show on Monday, August 7, and plays eleven more dates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey through the end of the year, finishing 2017 with what is sure to be a fabulous holiday show on December 18. I’ll be back, and – trust me – so should you.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.

The Summer Club plays again on Monday, August 7, 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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