An Interview with ‘The Summer Club’ – Previewing ‘A Big Band Valentine’s Day’ at Philadelphia Theatre Company

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Since its premiere in the Jersey-shore town of Cape May in July 2014, The Summer Club has been bringing the retro sound of the Big Bands, the sophisticated stylings of the Swing era, and the tight-knit camaraderie for which the Rat Pack was known to audiences throughout the greater Philadelphia area. On Wednesday, February 14, the company – the brainchild of award-winning actor and singer Jeff Coon – will make its debut at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre with A Big Band Valentine’s Day, a spectacular one-night event for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, with a 22-song set list that promises to make you “fall in love all over again.”

The Summer Club. Photo by Shifted Focus Photography.
The Summer Club. Photo by Shifted Focus Photography.

I spoke with The Summer Club crooners Jeff Coon (Founder and Executive Director), Fran Prisco (Creative Director), JP Dunphy, and Michael Philip O’Brien, and Special Guest singer Rebecca Robbins, in anticipation of next month’s big event. As it is on stage, the air of excitement, good-natured joking, and mutual respect was there throughout the conversation, as we discussed the music, the performers, the show, and the future.

Deb: What is it about Swing, the Big Bands, and the Rat Pack?

JP: I was introduced to all of it through my grandmother, and then reconnected when Jeff, my mother, and Joey [Abramowicz, The Summer Club’s General Manager], got together to talk about forming the company. For me, personally, I’m drawn to it because of the energy of Big Band music. That is so rare, you can’t find it anywhere else.

Jeff: There’s something about this kind of music of the late ‘50s to early ‘60s that has always felt special. Going out in those days was an event; you got dressed up, you went out to dinner, you went to the show, you had cocktails. It was a big night out, and the bands were as big a part of it as the front vocalists. You would go to see Frank Sinatra, or Ella Fitzgerald, with the Count Basie Orchestra; the musicians were as much of a draw as the singers themselves. That’s what energizes me – the relationships, and also the fun, with each other and with the audience. We’re not trying to imitate the Rat Pack, but I’d like to think that we capture that spirit of fun in our own interactions and audience involvement.

Fran Prisco and Jeff Coon. Photo by Shifted Focus Photography.
Fran Prisco and Jeff Coon. Photo by Shifted Focus Photography.

Yes, and Fran definitely has that Rat Pack sense of humor!

Michael: [kidding] That’s ‘cause Fran’s old.

Fran: We want to recreate the fun and the camaraderie. Who wouldn’t want to live like that? Though [kidding back] we made a mistake when we brought Michael in. When we started, we actually had scripts with “ribbing” written into them; it’s an important part of the show.

When you began to think about forming the act, how did you decide on which of your colleagues to invite to become official ‘Summer Clubbers’ and what made those of you who were asked decide to accept the invitation?

Jeff: It was mostly Frannie and Joey, and JP was part of the original discussion in February of 2014. Mike was part of the third show; he wasn’t available for the first two. My main consideration, though it might sound selfish, was, “Do I like being around these people? Who do I want to hang out with and drink cocktails?” And of course, “Who’s got a voice that will knock your socks off?”

Fran: [still ribbing] Yeah, and we needed someone younger, so we ended up letting Mike in.

Michael Philip O’Brien. Photo by Billy B Photography.
Michael Philip O’Brien. Photo by Billy B Photography.

Michael: We each bring something different to the table, either musically or personality-wise; it rounds out the show. I love this music, though I didn’t have as much of a connection to it as the others. But the opportunity as a singer to sing with this type of a band was amazing! When I first started, I was doing a lot of Fran’s material, so I had to bring my own style, to make the songs, and the show, a little different each time.

What’s your first creative memory – the one that made you realize that the life of a performing artist, and specifically a career in musical theater, was for you?

Fran: For me it was watching my family doing community theater. I grew up with that, and I was always singing around the house. I also really loved the applause I got, so that decided it!

JP: When I was a kid, my parents got me four Disney Sing-Along Songs. They taped me singing Aladdin; they applauded, and I liked it!

JP Dunphy. Photo by Paul Sirochman.
JP Dunphy. Photo by Paul Sirochman.

Rebecca: I watched Fiddler on the Roof on TV, and then my Mom took me to see it live. I was about six, and the difference between the two was obvious. Then I started taking voice lessons at seven.

Jeff: At age four or five, we had a school project on the Greek gods and goddesses. I chose Hermes, because I had a cat named Herman. I took great joy in putting the costume together, with cardboard and tin-foil wings; it was fulfilling.

Fran: You astonish me. I’ve known you for 25 years, and I’ve never heard that story. It’s going into the show!

Michael: For me it was my first audition ever, at Huntingdon Valley dinner theater. I forgot all of my lyrics, I started crying, I ran off stage, and I hugged my Mom. I was so humiliated, I never would have gone back, but I guess they didn’t have any other little boys for the role, so they still asked me to do the show! So the fact that I was called back, even though I was traumatized and crying, is why I’m doing this today. I started voice lessons at nine or ten. My mother made me go; I resisted, but I’m grateful to her now.

What are you most looking forward to about bringing The Summer Club to the Philadelphia Theatre Company?

Jeff: There’s a ton of things, so I’ll just do a couple. First of all, the idea of Paige Price [Producing Artistic Director] and Emily Zeck [Managing Director] for this season – to do something different, to move forward, to bring a great new presence to the city – is genius. Secondly, because of them reaching out to new audiences, we’ll also have the opportunity to expand our reach to develop a new audience.

Fran: I’m looking forward to drinking on stage! PTC has a liquor license, so there will be a bar on stage. The audience can also get drinks in the lobby, and bring them into the theater.

Fran Prisco. Photo by Dan Olmstead.
Fran Prisco. Photo by Dan Olmstead.

In addition to the cocktails, will the venue have any other impact on the design and experience of the show?

Jeff: The space is absolutely perfect! It’s big enough for our sound, but still intimate. It’s not a 20,000-seat arena, so we can retain that connection with our audience. I think we can do our show in lots of places. Our performance area at Parx Casino last year was tiny, we were behind the bar, but we did it. PTC allows us to do the show in the best possible way, with a main-stage theater space that’s just the right size for us.

The Summer Club often includes special guest vocalists and stand-up comics, along with the regular ‘Clubbers.’ In addition to Rebecca’s appearance, will there be any other extra offerings for the PTC audience at the Valentine’s Day show?

Jeff: Yes. As far as our guests, again we ask the selfish question, “Who do we like and who do we want to hang out with?” We also think about what artists we’d like to offer the opportunity they deserve to be featured. And we try to be inclusive; we want to have a variety in terms of gender and ethnicity. Rebecca has an outstanding voice, so we certainly want to feature her. This will be her debut with us, and I’m really excited; her voice should be on everyone’s bucket list. I feel like we’re doing our duty to humanity by having her in the show!

Rebecca Robbins. Photo by Dane Wagner.
Rebecca Robbins. Photo by Dane Wagner.

Fran: Jeff can give you the full evening line-up.

Jeff: At 6:00, Jackie Fisher, Executive Director of Take the Lead Dance Project, will offer free Swing dance lessons, which makes a great addition to what we already do. PTC will also have Happy Hour in the lobby from 6 to 7, with champagne cocktails and specials. The show starts at 7:00, with a 22-song set specifically designed for PTC and Valentine’s Day that caters to date night. There will be an intermission, so the audience can enjoy more cocktails at the lobby bar, and after the performance, we’ll stay to talk to the audience, and maybe have a few drinks. Plus everyone gets a yummy gift for coming! I also want to mention that there are a limited number of $25 tickets for industry members and students. The show includes champagne, dance lessons, and a gift, so even without the discount, it’s still a great deal at the regular admission price.

How do you select the song list, which changes for each performance? Is it a group effort?

Fran: It is a group effort, with Jeff, Joey, Larry [Lees, Musical Director], and me. We have a library of songs that we go through; for this one, I cut them into little pieces of paper and moved them around the board to create a fluid order. A lot of work goes into it. And we have a whole other wish list that someday will be a part of the show. But whenever JP asks to do a song, we say no (I’m just kidding).

Larry Lees. Photo by Laura Boyd.
Larry Lees. Photo by Laura Boyd.

Jeff: We switch our songs around sometimes, and add some if time and budget allow us to do that, since Larry has to do all of the arrangements and orchestrations. Fran is great at putting the shows together, so we mostly defer to him.

What are some of the favorite love songs we can expect each of you to perform for Valentine’s Day?

Fran: Some of them don’t know yet, but I have the list right here in front of me, so I’ll give you a little sampling. I’ll be doing “Come Fly with Me” and Jeff will do the Nat King Cole hit “L-O-V-E.” Mike will sing “The Way You Look Tonight,” JP will do “It Had to Be You,” and Rebecca and I will sing the Frank and Nancy Sinatra duet “Something Stupid.”

Rebecca: Oh, I’d love to do that!

Fran: And there will be lots more, but we want the audience to be surprised.

Beyond your regularly-scheduled dates at Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center in Manayunk, you’ve also done some touring. What are the challenges of taking such a big show, with a live seventeen-piece orchestra, on the road?

Jeff: All of the stuff – like the stands and the uniforms – Joey and I schlep. That’s the only real challenge.

Joey Abramowicz. Photo by Billy B Photography.
Joey Abramowicz. Photo by Billy B Photography.

Fran: And the places we’ve gone have been so accommodating.

Jeff: Venice Island is fantastic, they let us store our things there.

Michael: Another challenge we needed to address has been the different schedules of all of the singers. That’s one of the benefits of Jeff getting multiple people involved, so if there’s an availability issue with one of us, we can tailor the shows and add guests. Also we do our Venice Island dates on Mondays, when theaters are generally dark. But I love doing The Summer Club so much, I wanted to be available for our trips to the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster last year!

Jeff: We started in the summer, when theaters are usually dark, in July-August when it’s slow or dead for about six weeks. So that’s when we try to schedule our core group, and our out-of-town dates.

Jeff Coon. Photo by Billy B Photography.
Jeff Coon. Photo by Billy B Photography.

What are your hopes and plans for the future of The Summer Club?

Jeff: We’d like to record a CD; we’re trying to figure out how to put that together. It’s expensive.

JP: I have a background in this because I used to write music in high school and college. I’ve done things on iTunes and other media apps, so once we get the songs recorded, I can get them up. The digital distribution just pays for itself to keep going.

Jeff: Five years down the road, I’d also like to get a Summer Club bus and commit to a three-month tour. We continue to grow. We’ll be playing New Orleans in November, and we’re looking at Florida in 2019. Ideally, I’d like to be able to offer a three-month contract and pay, a reliable source of income, to our performers.

Fran: That goes back to our first meeting – we can get our friends work. From the get-go, that was a goal.

Many thanks to all of you for giving us an inside look at The Summer Club and the PTC show, and for offering Philadelphia audiences a fabulous way to spend Valentine’s Day this year! I can’t get enough of The Summer Club, and I know I’m not alone.

Photo by Frank Scott.
Photo by Frank Scott.

The Summer Club: A Big Band Valentine’s Day plays Wednesday, February 14, 2018, at Philadelphia Theatre Company, performing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – 480 South Broad, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.