STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
The Summer Club, an ensemble that performs big band hits, returns to Venice Island Performing Arts Center on April 3rd as part of their Mondays in Manayunk series. This performance will feature the group’s founder Jeff Coon as well as special guest Krissy Fraelich, both Springfield residents.
In a phone interview with Coon from his home, he explained his love of big band music, his love of theater and the genesis of The Summer Club.
“I grew up listening to WPEN, WWDB, Fridays with Frank, Sundays with Sinatra… because my grandmother loved it and she was such a big part of my life,” said Coon. “When I got to be in college — I went to Penn — I really gained a greater appreciation for the actual music behind it. By that I mean not just the vocalists like Sinatra or Dean Martin or Tony Bennett, but the music itself, the people who made it sound like it sounded, like Nelson Riddle and Billy May, the arrangers.
“After I got out of college I met my friend Fran Prisco, who’s a part of the show, and we realized we have this mutual appreciation for the idea of a big band sound and a 17-piece orchestra playing and then being able to sing in front of that in that old school night club feel. We were probably 23 years old at the time, about 23 years ago.”
It wasn’t until 2014 that Coon finally had the ability to turn his dream of creating such a production into reality. He connected with Ree Dunphy, who asked him to meet with her son JP Dunphy, and offer some pointers to the younger aspiring actor. Coon then discovered that Ms. Dunphy was looking to produce a show.
So Coon thought “What about finally figuring out a way to produce this show that’s been swimming around my consciousness for over 20 years?”
Coon is an established Barrymore Award–winning actor. He has worked professionally for 25 years and has appeared in productions locally at Walnut Street Theatre and Arden Theatre Company as well as in national productions with Philadelphia Theatre Company, and at The Kennedy Center, The Prince Music Theatre and others. Yet with all his experience in theater, he knew he would need some help to put something like this together.
Coon first reached out to John Drechen, the current band director at Lower Cape May Regional High School, Coon’s alma mater.
“Not only does he teach at the high school, but he also plays with different bands in Jersey (and) he plays with bands up here in Pennsylvania and he sent me back a list of people. They are our band, these 17 people (and) the 17 people who were there from the beginning are the people who continue to play with us,” said Coon.
As for putting it all together, Coon, Prisco, general manager Joey Abramowicz and Larry Lees choose the repertoire for the group.
“And our music director, Larry Lees, does all of our arrangements, all of our charts for the band and also conducts each show. He also lives in Springfield.”
As for the vocalists, The Summer Club has a regular cast as well as special guests.
“We have the four guys in white jackets that generally are comprised of me, Fran Prisco, JP Dunphy and then one other person. Then we bring in special guests. For example, on our next show in Manayunk, we have Krissy Fraelich, who is another Springfield resident and one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard. Then when we come back and do another show in May, it’ll be a totally different show. The idea is that if you’re interested in having a regular night out, whether it’s once a month or three times a year or whatever it is, that you can say ‘I can go see The Summer Club and know that I’m going to get a fantastic night of music and that I will not have seen that show before.”
He added: “It’s music that should be experienced live and in the way that it was originally meant to be heard with the full complement of instruments. We have a piano, bass, drums, guitar, but then we also have four trumpets, four trombones and five reeds. There’s something, I think, really exciting about being able to bring this music alive… to an audience that either grew up loving it or to a new audience who’s never really been exposed to it before.”
You can see The Summer Club locally in Manayunk on April 3, and, usually monthly in Manayunk. In addition they will have three shows at UPTOWN! Knauer Performing Arts Center in West Chester plus a special show on Mothers Day at PARX Casino in Bensalem. Visit their website at www.summerclubshows.com for details about their upcoming schedule.