Review: ‘The Summer Club’ at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia

Until now, The Summer Club has been a swinging, snappy treat enjoyed almost exclusively by Cape May and other Jersey Shore towns. After two summers of hot nights on the beach, The Summer Club and it’s 17-piece Big Band exploded onto the Arden Theatre’s stage Monday night calling back to a time of dinner jackets and bow ties for their first visit to Philadelphia. Made up of local theater artists with a deep affection for the music of the hip supper club set, theirs is a type of show hard to find in any other setting and certainly not to be missed.

The cast of 'The Summer Club.' Photo by Andrew Joos.
The cast of ‘The Summer Club.’ Photo by Andrew Joos.

This is a collection of artists we are used to seeing and hearing around Philadelphia who are at the top of their game in the highest tier of this city’s formidable talent pool. At the helm is Philly-favorite Jeff Coon, sharing in a large portion of the evening’s hosting not to mention the source of the group’s passion for the splashy sound his band recalls from yesteryear.

The structure of The Summer Club centers around Coon and the rest of his leading quartet – Fran Prisco, Michael Phillip O’Brien, and JP Dunphy – while inviting guest Summer Clubbers to the stage here and there to fill out the set list – in this case Tony Braithwaite, Rachel Brennan, Elena Camp, Rachel Camp, and Kristine Fraelich. Positioned in front of an stellar orchestra and their sleek old-fashioned bandstands, these voices take a two-hour grand tour of jazz and big band music in a classic Rat Pack style.

The Big Band setup permits Coon to be as loud and boisterous as his naturally energetic charisma allows. Throwing his arms wide and stomping his broad frame across the stage, he attacks the music as if feeding off of it, while filling the room with the boundless joy he finds in these classic tunes.

In the two years since its inception, Music Director Larry Lees has reorchestrated some of the era’s most famous tunes for these voices and instruments – “Come Fly With Me,” “Beyond the Sea,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “The Birth of the Blues,” and “The Lady is a Tramp” to name a few – for a sound authentic to Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, but with the fresh take of their new talent.

Full of charm and jokes from decades of friendship, Jeff Coon and Fran Prisco jab playfully at each other in between numbers, and share a snappy “Me and My Shadow” later in the evening showing off their keen understanding of and natural fit into this style. JP Dunphy, affectionately called “The Kid,” has a smooth baritone that shines in his solos and blends well into group numbers such as “Luck Be a Lady” or “My Kind of Town.” Michael O’Brien’s strong tenor stops the show with a “Feelin’ Good” as agile, scorching, and edgy as you’d ever hope to find.

Not to be ignored, the female talent powerfully takes the stage in solos and duets, most notably Rachel and Elena Camp’s medley of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days are Here Again,” Rachel Brennan’s “Cheek to Cheek,” and Krissy Fraelich’s achingly bittersweet “Over the Rainbow.” As a special treat, these impressive ladies surprised their fellow Summer Clubbers with a tight a cappella version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to rival any girl group from the good old days.

The cast of 'The Summer Club.' Photo by Andy Joos.
The cast of ‘The Summer Club.’ Photo by Andrew Joos.

The Summer Club is a rare, authentic chance to revisit some of America’s favorite music from a bygone era. With a light-hearted and biting sense of humor, this joyful group of friends thrill at the chance to revisit these classic tunes and share the stage with such epic talent. The evening is casual but classy, led by four gents so reminiscent of the 60s, all that’s missing is a cool martini in each of their hands – although, they are undoubtedly just off stage.

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

The Summer Club played for one night only, on Monday, June 27, 2016, at the Arden Theatre – 40 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, PA. Future Summer Club dates and locations can be found online.