THE SUMMER CLUB (Arden): Come swing with us

A big band with all the fixings (full horn section, matching podiums) sets the stage for this labor of love directed by Jeff Coon. He seems genuinely at home in his white dinner jacket: belting the hits of the 50s and 60s, cuing the band with his fist, and responding to his heckling mother in the audience. The song arrangements (by Larry Lees) don’t stray far from Sinatra’s, but this allows Coon to play with rhythmic variation in his comfort zone.

Joining Coon is creative director and performer Fran Prisco. He is not as ecstatically wasted as Dean Martin but brings that same goofball nonchalance and playful vocal flexibility, especially in his rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. The Pack is filled out by the sweet and awkward boyishness of JP Dunphy, aka The Kid; and the powerhouse that is Michael Philip O’Brien, who allows softness in his velvet lows and resists ending every song with the typical musical theater vibrato. When he lets loose on “Feelin’ Good” he brings down the house.

Photo by Mark Jordan.
Photo by Mark Jordan.

The show switches between solo performances (“The Lady is a Tramp), ensemble pieces (“Can Do”), duets (in “Luck Be a Lady”), and messy carefree unisons (“Come Fly With Me”), and just when you’re growing tired of all the black and white and baritone they “bring out the girls”. There is a upbeat sister act in blue composed of Rachel and Elena Camp. Kristine Fraelich is the seasoned first lady, dressed in all black. The red vixen is given voice by the Rachel Brennan, who brings it down a notch with “The Man That Got Away”. Perhaps the best moment of the show is when all the ladies sing an a cappella “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, Andrews sisters-style. It was a last minute surprise for Coon, but the harmonies are tight and it is one of the few choreographed numbers. Tony Braithwaite, artistic director of the Act II Playhouse in Ambler, also joins the show midway (“This is the best cruise I’ve ever been on!”). He tells funny stories, hosts a pop quiz, and teases people as they exit for the bathroom.

The most glaring difference between this homage and the original is the lack of people of color onstage. Granted, not every show is about race, but the Rat Pack was a symbol of integration in the 60’s, and its members were strong, vocal advocates of the Civil Rights Movement. The less obvious difference is the feeling of being performed at, instead of being drawn into a talented clan of friends. The chumminess of a shoulder hug seems forced and unsure without the hour of physical pranks and dancing to back it up. With the exception of O’Brien there’s little of the subtlety of the old crooners. The Camp sisters’ version of “Get Happy” is more Ethel Merman than Judy Garland.

In the end, THE SUMMER CLUB does feel like a club. It has many returning fans, some of whom get shout outs or songs worked especially for them, and there’s a clever rendition of “My Kind of Town (Philadelphia Is)” complete with a hoagie mouth accent. It’s a classic night out and should fit right in when they take it to the Jersey Shore this summer. 

[Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street] June 27, 2016;

Upcoming shows:

  • July 23, 2016: Cape May Convention Hall, 714 Beach Avenue, Cape May, NJ
  • July 30, 2016: Avalon Community Center, 3001 Avalon Avenue,
  • Avalon, NJ
  • August 5, 2016: Avalon Community Center, 3001 Avalon Avenue,
  • Avalon, NJ

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