To experience The Summer Club, the much talked about promising new group and their swinging show, I drove from Philadelphia through the hinterlands of New Jersey, before, after several hours, I reached Cape May where Jeff Coon and some of the best Philadelphia singers gave a standing room only performance that blew us away. That was in 2014.
Annually, thousands of Philadelphians morph into weekend migrants to the shore, Phil-Billy music blaring from their clunkers. This weekend, while the cheese-steak crowd is piling into Wildwood, sophisticated Philadelphians go on their annual pilgrimage to Cape May to experience the latest program of The Summer Club. By now, Jeff Coon’s musical extravaganza on the shore is making waves and reaching cult status.
If you missed The Summer Club in the past, you now have three additional opportunities at the end of July and beginning of August. (For details, see below.) I caught their most recent, sold-out concert at the Arden Theatre.
The Secret Garden—one of the best productions in Philadelphia this season, with Jeff Coon as an aging, hunchbacked father and guardian, limping around, looking grim and distraught—had just closed. The fantastic, constantly changing stage design at the Arden, conceived jointly by Terry Nolen and Jorge Cousineau, had made way for a classical, grand band stand for TheSummer Club orchestra of 17 musicians—all dressed in black tuxedos and bowties. Quite a few of the musicians have an impressive background, including the conductor and composer, Larry Lees, whose energy caught on immediately.
Within seconds, we heard a radio announcement: the voice of one of the most cheerful, upbeat, and crowd-pleasing singers in Philadelphia introduced each singer and got us into the mood of the evening: Jeff Coon, the much-written about, brilliant brain behind the enchanting night of swing music in the city of brotherly love. Accompanied by the big band, one star after another arrived on stage in a white tuxedo jacket and black trousers, belting out parts of “Come Fly With Me”:
- J.P. Dunphy, a founding member of The Summer Club, even though he is the youngest member of the group, something the other singers didn’t let him forget whenever they referred to him as “the kid.”
- Fran Prisco, a Philadelphia native, who has performed in over 20 productions at the Walnut Street Theater and garnered a number of Barrymore nominations.
- Michael Phillip O’Brien, a multi-Barrymore award nominee, award winner for Outstanding Leading Actor in a musical, and the artistic director of 11th Hour Theater, Philadelphia’s popular “boutique” musical theater company; and finally, coming down the steps,
- Jeff Coon, Mr. Summer Club himself. The audience applauded so loudly and so long that he had to sing against the wave of enthusiasm coming his way.
After the “All Boys” opening of “Come fly with me,” each singer brought some of America’s best olden goldies to life, including “Pennies from Heaven,” thrown into the audience with great charm by Dunphy; “The Lady is a tramp,” one of my favorites, crooned by Coon; O’Brien then drifted us “Beyond the Sea”; while Prisco swooned the crowd with his rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
“Meet the Ladies” led into the second part of the program, introducing
- Kristine (“Krissy”) Fraelich, one of the popular stars in Philadelphia, who debuted on Broadway in The Civil War, and sang in Carnegie Hall as a member of the Broadway Gospel Choir. Wearing a black dress, she had the audience spellbound with her rendition of “Lover Come Back To Me.”
- Twins in real life, Elena and Rachel Camp, Philadelphia-born actors, singers, and teaching artists, made visible the song that could have been written for them in a previous life: “Together Wherever We Go.” The twin actors-singers-dancers charmed the audiences with their winning, twinning approach to music and dancing.
- Rachel Brennan, theater teaching artist, whose credit includes performing at the 11th Hour Theatre, People’s Light, the Prince Theater, and the Kennedy Center, followed in the footsteps of Judy Garland by singing her classical lament, “The Man That Got Away,” with its famous punchline, “Good riddance, good-bye!”
After numerous humorous skits and songs, The Summer Club surprised us with one of the wittiest entertainers in Philadelphia:
- Tony Braithwaite, Act II Playhouse director, three-time Barrymore award winning actor, comic, writer, and teacher at the Curtis Institute and UPenn, entertained the audience with observations so funny that people literally screamed, especially when he revealed a secret about the Arden Theatre that I dare not repeat. He brought an audience member on stage for a quiz and promised “free tickets to the Arden Theatre” for him and his wife. When the lucky fellow answered all of the questions correctly—with a bit of entertaining prompting by Braithwaite—the audience member, looking forward to free shows, was told that nobody at the Arden knew anything about this lovely surprise. Again, Braithwaite had the audience in stitches.
The Summer Club reached its “Big Finish” with the entire cast coming together with various numbers, including the song worth twice as much as the ticket price, in the rendition of O’Brien’s “Feeling Good.” Even the orchestra was swinging along as were many people in the audience. Another crowd pleaser was the “all boys” version of “My Kind of Town”—adapted for Philadelphia.
Jeff Coon and his team had done a great job. Everything went according to plan. The audience, humming along enthusiastically, was getting ready for “Bows,” the final number. Suddenly, the four women took over and floored the experienced Coon with an animated, energetic, and entertaining rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” the famous 1940s hit of the Andrew Sisters, which they dedicated to him.
The veteran Coon, speechless, wanting to show his gratitude for this stunning rendition, took off one of his shoes and threw it in front of the four singers as a sign of his appreciation. The audience went wild and people got up for a standing ovation before even the final number of all eight singers and The Summer Club band. I wouldn’t be surprised if this new female quartet could become another Summer Club on its own—perhaps called, “The Four Surprises.”
Afterwards, in the crowded Arden lobby, hardly anyone wanted to leave. That surprise mini-show became a great topic of conversation. I managed to get in touch with Krissy Fraelich, who shared this secret: “It was Fran Prisco’s idea. We rehearsed in the basement of the Arden about an hour before the performance. Crazy, right?!”
Crazy, indeed. Fabulous crazy—the icing on the cake of the hot Summer Club at the Arden.
If you missed one of the two sold-out performances in Philadelphia, don’t miss one of the three upcoming shows in July and August, although you have to drive to Avalon or Cape May. Just fire up your GPS and drive through the hinterlands of New Jersey. I tell you, the journey is worth every gallon of gas—besides, it’s cheaper in our neighboring state.
More importantly, you can combine a trip to the beach with a Summer Club concert.These three shows in NJ 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.
All the shows are directed by Jeff Coon and produced by Marie (“Ree”) Carney Dunphy, who knows how to make good things happen. The three NJ shows run for about 100 minutes—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.
Summer Club concerts:
- July 23, 8 to 10 pm, Cape May Convention Hall, 714 Beach Ave., Cape May, NJ.
- July 30 and August 5, Avalon Community Center, 3001 Avalon Ave., Avalon, NJ.
Visit summerclubshows.com for Summer Club tickets.