Discovering secrets of The Summer Club: Interviews with some of the best big band swinging performers on the East coast
“Come swing with us back to an era when life was cooler, music was snappier, and everyone drank their martinis straight up and their bourbons neat.” Who could resist that announcement from The Summer Club—the musical treat of the East coast?
Summer Club events with Jeff Coon and some of the best singers and musicians in Philadelphia are drawing large crowds wherever they perform, whether recently at the Arden Theatre Company, or the three upcoming performances in Cape May and Avalon, NJ (for details, see below).
We asked some of the movers and shakers, on stage and off stage, to answer these three questions and reveal some of the secrets of why this group is so immensely popular:
What are you bringing to The Summer Club in terms of your background, your talent, and your joie de vivre—your cheerful enjoyment of life?
Tell us a bit about your role and/or performance.
Tell us one thing about yourself that might delight the audience.
Singer and Executive Director Jeff Coon:
“I’d much rather become an audience member.”
I grew up with a deep and abiding love for the music of the Swing Band era. I loved Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Judy Garland, and all the great performers of this music. I don’t put myself on par with those historic and iconic performers, but I’m no slouch either. I bring my own performance skills as well as the admiration I have for those who made this music famous.
I’m the Executive Director of The Summer Club as well as a performer. This kind of show was something that my pal Fran Prisco, our creative director, and I dreamed about over 20 years ago. We wanted a musical “night out”—when folks got dressed up for dinner and a show at the Latin Casino in the 60s. The Summer Club is our version of that vision.
Looking at the concert series, I—along with our general manager Joey Abramowicz, and executive producer Ree Dunphy—am in charge of making the whole thing happen. There’s a structure that exists behind each show. The fun part starts when I get to sing with the band.
Though, truth be told, I’d much rather become an audience member, listening to my super-talented friends sing with our incredible band. I love hearing all of our musicians play, and watching the other Summer Clubbers perform with them.
I grew up in Cape May, NJ, which was the place where we did our first shows, two summers ago. We’ll be there this Saturday night to kick off our third season at the shore.
Comedian Tony Braithwaite:
“I’m a “bit of a palate cleanser.”
I am the stand-up, the Don Rickles of the Rat Pack, if you will. My role is to provide comic relief between the amazing songs. Bit of a palate cleanser, with stories, jokes, audience participation, and basically “anything funny that isn’t singing”—since everyone on stage sings better than me!
One thing about me that might delight the audience? I was thissss close to being Chandler on the TV show Friends. Maybe that delights an audience to hear. It usually sinks me into deep depression for six months.
Music Director and Orchestrator Larry Lees.
Ornamental Conductor in the Jazz World
My background is, frankly, all over the place. But, as it relates specifically to The Summer Club, my original career goal was to be a jazz trombonist. Then, somewhere along the line, I wanted to be a conductor—with an aim to work in the film scoring industry. Later, I found a passion for composition and orchestration. In all of these fields, I was lucky enough to study with some of the best, and pursue each discipline individually, and often, concurrently, for most of my formative years.
Ultimately, the trombone playing and conducting mostly fell by the wayside, and I got my degree in Composition. Since then, that has been the primary focus of my career—with a little arranging and orchestrating thrown in the mix. It is only occasionally that I’ve dipped back into the conducting world, with The Summer Club being the most recent endeavor on that front.
Apart from the boat-loads of “training,” aka “practical experience,” the biggest asset I bring to the Summer table is a true love for the music of this era. For my taste, there really isn’t anything better. I owe a good deal of that love to my grandparents, who always had this music playing. I absorbed it like a sponge. Even more so, I have always had a deep appreciation of and fascination with the “behind the scenes” musical geniuses that helped create this sound: Nelson Riddle, Billy May, George Rhodes, Quincy Jones, Mort Lindsay, etc. Sadly, most of these names are largely unknown today. Without these remarkable talents, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Judy Garland would not be considered as iconic as they are today. Their arrangers and conductors were an essential, yet often overlooked part of the equation. They should be remembered and recognized for their contributions.
My role as music director with The Summer Club is two-fold: I’m charged with creating all of the arrangements (or in jazz terms, “charts”) for the show. My goal is usually to be as faithful as possible to the original arrangements with which we’re all familiar. I’m trying to re-create that first sound. Now, one might initially think such a task unnecessary—under the assumption that a person could simply rent or purchase charts for many of these tunes. However, unless you have access to Nelson Riddle’s private archives, authentic arrangements are hard to come by. Yes, some re-creations (aka “transcriptions”) can be found, on occasion. But, more often than not, the workmanship is poor—and more so, the authenticity is severely lacking. I’m not sure if this is due to laziness or lack of skill.
In any event: to get as close as possible to the sound we want, I need to build all of this music from scratch. That task can involve countless hours of listening to recordings, notating what I hear, and so on. The work can be incredibly tedious, but it is also enjoyable—taking apart how those original charts were built. I consider myself to be very knowledgeable in this arena, but I never fail to learn something different with each new arrangement. The individuals who created those originals were true masters.
Yet, I’m still a creative artist in my own right. So, while I wish to maintain many of the basic ideas and the spirit of the originals, I always try to put my own personal stamp on each chart. Even with my most faithful re-creations, there is always a little something new I’ve thrown in there. For many of our charts, I have ventured out entirely on my own, but these are usually for songs which have no “definitive” interpretation.
My second role with The Summer Club is as conductor in performance. In the jazz world, for big bands like this, the conductor is somewhat ornamental. These musicians are skilled enough that they don’t often need me up there—at least not to keep tempos. They listen to each other and can keep it together on their own. However, I like to think that the musicians glean something from my presence in front of them. They react to my enthusiasm and energy. When I’m excited about something, they see and feel that—and it affects their performance. It really is thrilling to connect and make music together with them. There’s nothing like it—especially with the caliber of musicians we’re lucky enough to have in our orchestra.
This assessment, of course, is not meant to take anything away from the vocalists. I could easily ramble on about the joys of collaborating with them in every performance. It has its own set of thrills and challenges. Suffice it to say, the fun we all have together and the electric, and somehow intimate bond we create on stage, is something I treasure. I love that I get to work with both musicians and singers. We have the time of our lives, every single time. It is like we’re kids who get to play on this wondrous musical jungle-gym.
I would hope my sexy conducting “moves” might be enough to delight any audience, but . . . I kid, I kid. Seriously, some audience members might be delighted, or at least interested, to know that I am also a stage performer. Music has comprised half of my training, but performing and acting has comprised the other half.
I lived in New York City for many years. Unfortunately, the climate there was such that you were only allowed to be good at one thing. If you were an actor, you were an actor. If you were a musician, you were a musician. There was some unwritten rule that you couldn’t do both. As a result, I abandoned my performing aspirations for over a decade.
Now, since moving to Philadelphia three years ago, I’ve been allowed to re-explore that side of myself. Philadelphia has a very special and rare community of artists, where multiple skills and disciplines are celebrated—and not frowned upon. I’m very thankful that I’m now a part of this community and given the freedom to work professionally as an actor, while continuing to work professionally as a musician. I couldn’t be happier.
BIO: Larry Lees is also a well-known Iyricist and composer of musicals, including Jonestown, 16 Days, and the forthcoming Wonderpig, as well as operatic work, like Obesa Cantavit: The true tale of a music legend and the sandwich who loved her. The multi-talented Lees also arranges and orchestrates music, working primarily in New York and Philadelphia. Most recently, he created a new orchestration for the Arden’s production of The Secret Garden.
Singer Fran Prisco:
“Forgive my hubris, but I’ll let the show speak for itself.”
My biggest joy is getting to sing in front of the band. There is very little that can make me happier. I grew up listening to this type of music. My parents are big fans, and I’m thrilled to get to share this show with our audience.
As The Summer Club’s creative director, many of my ideas have made it onto the stage. However, one of my favorite parts of putting this show together is the collaboration between all of the “creatives.” It truly is a collaborative effort, and you can’t ask for a better group to work with. As for the performance, forgive my hubris, but I’ll let the show speak for itself.
“Fill my heart with song, let me sing forever more.” This line from “Fly Me to the Moon” is a joy to sing, and I mean it every time I get to belt it.
BIO: Fran Prisco is a Philadelphia native, who has performed in over 20 productions at the Walnut Street Theater and garnered a number of Barrymore nominations—famous not only for his comedic acting and his great voice, but also for his quick-witted approach that makes him an audience favorite, especially when he interacts with the crowd.
Production and Stage Manager Siobhan Ruane:
“Working with the most fun and talented people in the business.”
I earned a Master’s degree in stage management as well as a Bachelor’s degree in directing, and have worked as a stage manager and a production manager in New York, Las Vegas, and many other venues all over the country. Currently, I’m working as the assistant production manager at the Walnut Street Theatre, where I manage all production and technical aspects of 15+ shows per season, in multiple venues.
Bringing all my experiences to The Summer Club as the stage and production manager, I handle all technical aspects of our shows. I make sure all of our boys are always in their best light and sound like a million bucks.
While I try to make it look easy, the boys are actually quite a handful. It takes a lot of work to keep these guys on track, but there’s also much love between everyone. It’s a treat to be a part of the show. Best of all: we get to work with the most fun and talented people in the business. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
General Manager Joey Abramowicz:
Former gold medalist acrobat, bringing fashion and style to the show.
I bring to the show a sense of style. I love researching the period and making sure we pay as close attention as possible to the fashion and style of the genre. They’re as important as the music. I also try to make sure our performers are carefree and don’t have a thing to worry about—except entertaining our audiences.
During my former life as a competitive acrobat, I won seven National Gold Medals as well as a Gold and Silver World Title from 1990-1994.
Henrik: A big Summer Club thank you and three cheers—Martini or no Martini—to all of you musicians, singers, artistic support staff, and the comedian. Break a leg, three times—in two different locations.
You can meet all of these amazing contributors to The Summer Club during any of their three shows in New Jersey, which will present a brand new program, featuring Jeff Coon and his super-talented friends: J.P. Dunphy, Fran Prisco, Michael Phillip O’Brien, Rachel Brennan, and Tony Braithwaite—plus Larry Lees, conducting one of the best big bands on the East coast.
The upcoming New Jersey shows run for One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. The Cape May show offers a cash bar. Both Avalon shows are BYOB with room to dance, which always makes for a fun night.
July 23rd from 8 to 10 pm at Cape May Convention Hall – 714 Beach Avenue, in Cape May, NJ.
July 30th and August 5th at Avalon Community Center – 3001 Avalon Avenue, in Avalon, NJ.
Purchase Summer Club tickets.
Review of ‘The Summer Club’ at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia by Megan Diehl on DCMetroTheaterArts.