Jeff Coon at The Arden Cabaret Series

Jeff Coon, a familiar and dependable face on Philadelphia stages for two decades, returned this weekend to the Arden Theatre, a company where he’s played everyone from John Wilkes Booth (in Assassins) to a singing frog (in A Year With Frog and Toad). This time it was to kick off the Arden’s new cabaret series with a performance that showed off a widely eclectic taste in music, covering everything from Broadway to Björk. Coon’s voice was strong and expressive throughout his show.

Jeff Coon. Photo by Bill B Photography.
Jeff Coon. Photo by Bill B. Photography.

Known for his booming, commanding tenor – which he’s shown off in roles like Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun, Billy Bigelow in Carousel and Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – Coon showed just how powerful his voice can be on Cy Coleman and David Zippel’s “Funny,” then offered up a soft croon on Martin Sexton’s “Over My Head.” The song selections were sometimes ingenious: Stephen Sondheim’s “The Road You Didn’t Take,” in which the narrator laments his past by saying “The yearnings fade, the longings die / You learn to bid them all goodbye,” was paired with Aimee Mann’s “Momentum,” whose narrator says “I can’t confront the doubts I’ve had / I can’t admit that maybe the past was bad.”

Maury Yeston’s “Guido’s Song” allowed Coon to mock his own leading man vanity, while Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” enabled him to poke fun at his indulgences, singing “So please be kind if I’m a mess”. (That song benefited from Justin Yoder’s lovely plucked cello riff, with Amanda Morton’s piano adding discreet embellishments.)

“Unusual Way,” Maury Yeston’s love song to an ex-lover, had a lovely maturity and grace. Andrew Lippa’s “Be the Hero,” dedicated to Coon’s son, had a dynamic, hopeful and playful tone. And William Finn’s “What More Can I Say?”was delivered with tenderness and heart.

If the show had featured more moments like these, it would have been much better. Unfortunately, Coon devoted much of the evening to far-too-revealing confessional monologues about his personal life, sharing intimate details that, frankly, I didn’t need to hear and didn’t care about. These speeches were often uncomfortable to watch and to listen to. I wish this incredible performer and singer would have devoted more time to some of the great roles that he’s played and have earned him so much deserved acclaim. It would have been a much better way to review his life – allowing him to, as Lippa’s lyric says, “Be the hero of your story if you can” – and it would have given his devoted fans a taste of what they’ve come to love him for. I look forward to that cabaret, hopefully, in the near future.

Jeff Coon’s show marked the first in a season of cabaret performances in the 100-seat Studio Theatre at the Arden’s new Hamilton Family Arts Center. The setup forced Coon and his two musicians into a corner, with a few tables taking up much of what would normally be the performance space, and most of the audience seated in rows of plastic and metal chairs, which created poor sitelines. I hope these issues will be resolved for the next cabaret, when Joilet Harris performs her cabaret on February 12-14, 2016. Tickets go on sale to the public on January 1, 2016.

Philadelphia needs more cabaret and I am thrilled that the Arden has created this series and inaugurated it with one of my favorite performers.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

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Jeff Coon gave his final performance in the Arden Cabaret Series on Sunday, December 13, 2015. The series continues with Joilet Harris (February 12-14, 2016), Kristine Fraelich (April 22-24), and a performer to be named later (June 17-19). All shows are performed at the Arden Theatre’s Hamilton Family Arts Center – 62 North Second Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online. Tickets for Joliet Harris go on sale to the public on January 1, 2016.

Song List:

“Guido’s Song” (Maury Yeston, from Nine).

“It’s Oh So Quiet” (Björk).

“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” (Rufus Wainwright).

“The Road You Didn’t Take” (Stephen Sondheim, from Follies).

“Momentum” (Aimee Mann).

“Way Ahead of My Time” (Peter Mills).

“Funny” (Cy Coleman/David Zippel, from City of Angels).

“Over My Head” (Martin Sexton).

“Unusual Way” (Maury Yeston, from Nine).

“Be the Hero” (Andrew Lippa, from Big Fish).

“Real Emotional Girl” (Randy Newman).

“What More Can I Say?” (William Finn, from Falsettos).

“If the World Were Like the Movies” (Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty, from My Favorite Year).

“Children and Art” (Stephen Sondheim, from Sunday in the Park with George).

“Let’s Walk” (Adam Guettel, from The Light in the Piazza).