For anybody in show business, Frank Sinatra is one of those faces carved on Mount Rushmore: The style is irresistable but best not imitated. So the popular Philadelphia actor Jeff Coon isn't quite going there. But The Summer Club, a show he has formulated in venues around the Philadelphia area, brings back Rat Pack repertoire that refuses to die even as their original personalities become figures of an increasingly distant age -- and might inspire the occasional cringe.
"Never, ever are we trying to replace them," says Coon, 45, who plans periodic concerts, including this Monday at Manayunk's Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center. "It's a singular sound and a style, an American institution," he says, "that has become more and more important for me to preserve."
"What we want to evoke," says Coon, "is the feeling of an event for each show."
That partly means capturing the sense of unscripted camaraderie among Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., with a 17-piece orchestra made up of senior musicians who played for any number of famed entertainers during the heyday of Atlantic City, and Larry Lees arrangements that recall the Cadillac orchestrations of Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones, and Billy May. "They say that nobody does this anymore. They have to do piecemeal gigs," said Coon. "The more I talked to them, the more I saw how much they enjoy playing with us. And that made me more and more impassioned about doing it the right way."
Because of the expense of 17 musicians (most touring Broadway shows have no more than 13 pieces), Coon found private sponsors who believe in the project and have given him the capital to, as he puts it, "run with it." But what constituted doing it right in 1988 -- the year of the last Rat Pack tour -- won't work so well in 2016. Sinatra's between-song banter can sound like dialogue from The Sopranos. Martin smoked cigarettes incessantly during his concerts -- not cool with indoor-smoking bans. Some of Davis' jokes wouldn't fly so high with the current African American community. And Venice Island doesn't permit alcohol.
"But we have something vaguely resembling it," says Coon. "We may use apple juice, as Dean Martin either did or did not, depending on which story you believe."
Staying out of those fabled shadows partly means The Summer Club resembles, in some ways, The Ed Sullivan Show with a fluid lineup of guests. Because the show has no scripted scenario, like Jersey Boys, the song lineup is individually fashioned to each night's performers. Michael Philip O'Brien of 11th Hour Theatre is a frequent guest. Another visitor is Kenita Miller -- "she has an Eartha Kitt vibe" -- another indication that The Summer Club isn't adhering strictly to the Rat Pack ethos. Though women were part of that crowd, they weren't onstage regulars until Martin bailed on the last tour and was replaced by Liza Minnelli. The only constant is white dinner jackets: Even in the dead of winter, the show will still be The Summer Club.
In Coon's mind, the biggest gap to fill is that of Davis. "Pound for pound, Sammy was the greatest entertainer of them all. By a long shot," says Coon. "Some of the vocal fireworks he did ... that's what Michael does for us. He has that ability to light up the night vocally. "
The project is a curiously grassroots one, headed by Coon -- as opposed to some package devised by a large, seasoned producing organization. He's well-positioned for the project, considering how well his pipes fit the music, and considering his recognition factor among local theatergoers, many of them Main Line types who might find it easier to drive to Manayunk than to Center City's Arden Theatre, where Coon is currently in A Year with Frog and Toad through Jan. 29. The idea is to establish a regular presence on the first Monday of each month, when theater productions are dark, though with a Jan. 2 hiatus -- a date that still lies in the Rat Pack Hangover Zone.
The transition from theater to concert might seem liberating -- considering the latter is supposed to seem off-script, and fine details of Chekhovian characterization need not be heeded. Yet even Coon, who holds the official title of executive director of The Summer Club, finds challenges, though they are subtle. He grew up hearing Sinatra albums and positively venerates Sinatra at the Sands. But for every actress like Audra McDonald, who is also a great concert performer, there's an Ethel Merman, whose concerts often projected little more than secretarial efficiency. Even singing the right notes isn't necessarily a priority. And each song is about telling a short-term story rather than adhering to a plot line.
"It's more about having a vibe than being a musicianly presence ... and capturing the feel of the song," says Coon. "And it's me, as opposed to playing a character. Well, it's a public version of me -- as opposed to the me at home watching Netflix. There's something scary about that."