All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The sharp white dinner jackets and black bow ties tell one story. Tight harmonies on “Guys and Dolls” classics, “Fugue for Tinhorns” and “Luck Be a Lady,” tell another. Entertaining guest appearances by Joilet F. Harris and a talented dance duo extend the story. Self-assured fun completes the saga.
The setting is the Cape May Summer Club, a swank, sophisticated variety entertainment conceived by Philadelphia theater stalwart Jeff Coon and performed in high nightclub style by Coon and his cohorts Fran Prisco and J.P. Dunphy who swing pop standards and Great American Songbook favorites accompanied by a five-piece combo that grows into a 17-piece big band midway through the second half.
Individually and in combination. Coon, Prisco, and Dunphy show their talents, not just as singers but as entertainers who can happily and sincerely bring style to tunes presented for their own sake. Each of the men has a marvelous voice, but more importantly, each, although aiming more for pizazz than emotion, finds the core of his number and does justice to its lyrics as well as it music.
For Coon and Prisco, the Cape May Summer Clubs gives seasoned performers a chance to show a different side of their talent. Both have proven time and again they can effectively and affectingly play a theatrical role and sing a song beautifully or humorously in character. For Dunphy, the concert-style show marks a breakthrough. Although J.P. has been seen in numerous local productions, particularly at the Media Theatre, he rarely gets to play a lead. A solo in “Forever Plaid” may hint as his capabilities, but Dunphy has never gotten a chance to take stage and let loose.
Until now. When he does it with assurance and certain sweetness that make his numbers pay. Like Coon and Prisco, Dunphy is obviously enjoying himself, but he is also displaying unseen mettle as a singer who is in tune with his material and as a divinely agile dancer, which we have seen previously.
The Rat Pack is the inspiration for the Summer Club show. Coon and Prisco, frequent co-stars and close friends offstage, have their in jokes about drinking. Prisco goes into a Dean Martin voice to deliver some patter while Coon calls his co-star “Francis” and begins and punctuates moments with Ed McMahon’s patented “Hey-ohhh.” The byplay is cute but works mostly because it is kept in moderation and lives more as a homage than as a pattern.
Where the Rat Pack model has better effect is in the mood and tone of the Summer Club show. Everything is bright and precise. Songs are given lively, snappy presentations. The vocals are superb, and each singer exudes an individual and likeable personality.
These guys know what they’re doing, and they make every moment pay. I did not see a false or cloying note during more than two hours of confident showmanship.
That’s the point. The Cape May Summer Club is a show in the most literal and old-fashioned sense. It is a collection of bits and numbers meant to breezily divert folks who aren’t looking for anything more than a solid good time.
The art is in the music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, and even Jon Bon Jovi. It’s also in the suave, upbeat renditions of standards that matched Coon, Prisco, and Dunphy’s white, shawl-collared dinner suits for effortless style.
“Cape May Summer Club” has the feel of a well-produced Las Vegas revue of a bygone era when top entertainers, people whose acts are fond and engrained memories today, brought genuine savvy to familiar material and paced jumping tunes with ballads while lacing singing with patter to give audiences a swell, but highly polished time.
‘ Coon, Prisco, and Dunphy harken back to a time when it was fun to go out and sell a song and when audiences were grateful for strong voices and personal nuance.
I, for one, miss that kind of entertainment. It has been replaced by flash, big effects that often take precedence over music or intimacy of performances. I’m not knocking rock bands as much as groups or solo performers who think repeating one main lyrical line to a basic rhythm is enough.
Coon, Prisco, and Dunphy present their songs with gusto but also invite you to share the number. Their show is warm in addition to being vivacious. The singers do their songs for you. Their main purpose is to entertain, and they do it in a way that you feel as if you know the performer better after each number.
Yes, I’m sure each is indulging in doing numbers he wanted to do since he heard his first Sinatra recording, but none of the singers copy Sinatra or any model. Each does his song in his own way. You don’t see imitation or get a sense that anyone was lazy and just copied an arrangement.
The headline guys at the Cape May Summer Club are the real thing. They know their business, and they carry it out adroitly.
One of the things I like best is they also carry it out without a hint of self-consciousness. They are not spoofing or lampooning. They are not characters playing at being a certain brand of entertainer. They are professionals who love and respect their material and obviously enjoy the opportunity to do a kind of music, in vogue or not, with sincerity and verve. “Cape May Summer Club” is an open, presentational show, and Coon, Prisco, and Dunphy are naturally smooth and easygoing about charming their audience.
I have always been disturbed by trends in entertainment, mainly because I have a tendency to prefer “ands” over “ors.” From the time I was a kid, I could never figure out why I had to choose The Beach Boys over the Four Seasons or vice versa and couldn’t enjoy both equally. What was the matter, I thought, with liking The Beatles and Rolling Stones as well as Bing Crosby or Judy Garland? Or Eric Clapton, David Bowie, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer?
The entire history of entertainment should be celebrated at all times. I disagree with the assertion John Logan gives Mark Rothko in the play “Red” when Rothko says it is the job of a new generation of artists to repudiate or obliterate the art of the past. I say, “Go forward while preserving.”
Opera is exciting when done well. Vaudeville and music hall, even bits dating back to the 19th century, can be funny. There is a place for the classic. “New” does much mean “better.” It’s additional.
Today, the impetus for is knocking one’s socks off or breaking the envelope. In my experience, that happens once every 20 years or so. In musical theater, a “Ragtime” or “Spring Awakening” does something new. In pop music, someone like Adele proves the voice isn’t a bygone need, and Lady Gaga knows how to have Madonna-like fun.
That’s wonderful, but I’ll tell you truly, when I am surfing through hundreds of channels looking for anything I deem worth watching, my remote always stops clicking when I spot Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire. The truly new is rare. It should be lauded. But shouldn’t all forms of entertainment be appreciated on their own terms? Should “Show Boat” be thrown into mothballs? Or artists like Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, Jack Benny, or Louis Prima forgotten? No!!!
Variety entertainment is fun. Sure, mediocrities can make it cloying or soporific. I have been lucky enough to see Frank Sinatra in person three times, to have been in a 60-seat club when Tony Bennett did a 90-minute set, to stop dead on the Atlantic City boardwalk and insist my grandfather take me to “see Dorothy” when I saw a picture of Judy Garland outside the Convention Hall, and to see true one-of-a-kinds from Rosemary Clooney to Kitty Wells in intimate nightclubs.
What Jeff Coon has wrought, and what Fran Prisco and J.P. Dunphy assist him in executing is both a return and tribute to a brand of entertainment that has seen its day but is mourned because it is so direct and elemental.
“Cape May Summer Club” moves with brio. Everything, even the Rat Pack schtick, plays. Prisco begins the show with impact. Dunphy is a winning crooner. Coon adds and extra dimension with the luster and power of his voice. For good measure, the excellent Joilet F. Harris makes a guest appearance to do four Ella Fitzgerald numbers.
Harris comes the closest to channeling a great from the past. Coon, Prisco, and Dunphy may do specialty material like Coon’s rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky,” but they don’t sing in the manner of the artist who made a recording famous. Harris is Ella practically note-for-note.
The homage works. I’d like to see Harris use her big belt to wail out a number, but she is an able and welcome Ella.
Mark Stuart and Mindy Wallace, a dance team, who are on all three bills Coon has prepared for Cape May Summer Club do original material and are particularly remarkable for how much they accomplish on a tiny stage.
Stuart’s choreography requires Wallace to be quite the gymnast as he deftly swings her around his body and flings her in various projections across the stage. Stuart and Wallace are especially impressive when they hold a difficult pose and makes it look effortless.
Erin Maguire was the change-of-pace act. A comedian who also has a great voice, as she demonstrated while doing David Friedman’s “Rich, Famous, and Powerful,” Maguire was more contemporary in style than others in the show. Her material was so edgy, it didn’t always register. Talk about Kathy Griffin or the Kardashian sisters was funny but not in keeping with tone of “Cape May Summer Club.” Maguire shows the direction in which stand-up has gone rather than doing patter in the manner of Phyllis Diller or Totie Fields that would fit in better with the Cape May Summer Club atmosphere.
Coon is assembling two more shows for the Cape May Convention Center. On August 16, a funnyman who can sing, Tony Braithwaite, joins the mix along with mime, magician, juggler, and singer Dave Jadico. Becky Gulsvig, who recently appeared with Coon in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” at the Walnut, is also part of the company.
On August 30, Fran Prisco will be absent because he is needed at rehearsals for “Nine to Five” at the Walnut. Coon and Dunphy, both of whom have Cape May ties, will welcome Kristine Fraelich and Jennifer Hope Willis. Erin Maguire also returns for that show. (I hope she wears the same stunning dress, one she said was “painted on,” for her reprise performance.)
“Cape May Summer Club” recalls in the best way Las Vegas at it height, Rat Pack-style format, and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It features rousing entertainment, smartly done.
Coon, Prisco, and Dunphy look fantastic in their dinner suits. Larry Lees is also in white to lead a 17-piece ensemble in a big band sound that ignites the already energetic songs from “Guys and Dolls.” Amanda Morton and the five-piece band that plays three-quarters of the show, are also top-grade.
Kudos for Acir Pro, credited with sound design, for keep mikes at a level at which the performers could be heard and understood. Overly hot miking is epidemic is theater today, and it’s good to see a company or designer who can keep volume and intelligibility controlled.
Did I mention the audience gets to sing along with the Al Alberts tune, “On the Way to Cape May?” Well, it does. So be ready.
“Cape May Summer Club” has two more performances, 8 p.m. Saturday, August 16 and 30, at Cape May Convention Hall, 714 Beach Avenue, in Cape May, N.J. Tickets are $35 and can be obtained by calling 609-884-9563 or 855-708-9699 or by going online to http://www.discovercapemaynj.com.