They say that the classic Las Vegas lounge act was created to enter wives and girlfriends while their husbands and boyfriends gambled next to them on the casino floor. This could be true; after all, the Vegas lounge had its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there were more distinct boundaries between the sexes. In any case, it is part of classic Vegas that is no more. Gone are the lounges and the dinner shows, the showgirls, the glitz, the Rat Pack (accept no imitations). But that era still lives on in shows like “Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara“, which we saw last night at The Geffen Playhouse (FB).
I first learned about this show many years ago when it started out at the Sacred Fools Theatre (FB). I thought about getting tickets then as it was getting rave reviews, but I (a) was unfamiliar with Prima (FB) and Smith (FB); (b) thought it was a jukebox musical; and (c) couldn’t work it into my schedule. I kept hearing good buzz about the show when it moved to the Geffen in 2009, but (a) I couldn’t work it in, and (b) couldn’t find a good discount on the Geffen prices. So I missed it again. It then went off to Chicago in early 2015 (during the opening salvos in the “I Love 99” war) and got strong reviews. It came back to the Geffen for a return engagement as a retooled, strengthened, and lengthened show. When I heard that it was coming back, I set my “star” for the Geffen on Goldstar, and waited. It popped, I bought, and we were back at the
Westwood Playhouse (oops) Geffen Playhouse for one of the opening preview performances of this go-around of Louis and Keely.
I’m glad I waited until the show was strengthened even further, and I’m glad I made sure to get tickets for the show. Rarely does a show have me smiling from pure enjoyment and entertainment the entire night through.
Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara (FB) essentially tells the story of the formation and rise of Prima and Smith as an act and as a couple, and a taste of the subsequent fall. There is a bit of opening exposition of how Prima got where he was; there is a bit of closing exposition of what happened after the breakup. But the real focus of the show is Prima telling his story: how he found Smith, how he shaped the act, how the act took over Vegas, and how it all fell apart. Given that both Prima and Smith are real people, the story underlying it all is well known and need not be repeated here.
The book, which was written initially by Vanessa Claire Stewart (FB) and Jake Broder (FB), and then reworked for the first Geffen presentation by Taylor Hackford (FB), and then […] and then picked up by Hershey Felder (FB) and reworked for Chicago… you get the idea… uses Prima as the framing device. It starts out with Prima giving a bit of his history in New Orleans, touches on his Big Band era, and rapidly moves to New Jersey where the now out-of-style Prima is reduced to playing Tiki Lounges. There he meets Dorothy Jacqueline Keely who auditions as a singer… and an act is born. The story tells — through Prima’s narration, when necessary — about the start of the lounge act in Vegas, its rise, the entanglement of his personal life with that of Keely and the act, and the involvement with Frank Sinatra. It also shows how the act imploded — and implies or states a number of reasons for that implosion: underlying insecurity from Prima, underlying womanizing tendancies from Prima, interactions with Frank Sinatra, actions and reactions. Ultimately, it showed how Prima and Smith had different goals: for Prima, it was always giving the audience the show, that was his first and always love; for Smith, it was love for Prima that made the act, and when that was gone, so was she. All of the was punctuated by Prima and Smith (well, the actors portraying them) performing the numbers that made them famous.
In terms of the story, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Perhaps my only quibble was that it left me wanting… more. There is a brief closing scene where we see Prima collapsing. We then see Smith announcing his passing, and seemingly performing with his memory. But there also needs to be more of an epilogue — if not on stage, then certainly in the program. They divorced in 1961, and Smith continued to have influence in the Jazz world after that … including a comback in the 1990s. Prima continued a solo career strongly independent of Smith until his death in 1978. Reviewing the material I could find to write up this, umm, writeup, I come away with the impression that the book of the show muddies the water a bit from the truth — probably for dramatic affect. It certainly plays with the timeline between the discovery of Keely and their popularity in the lounge, the timeline of the relationship with Sinatra (it appears to have been after the divorce), the nature of her solo recordings.
As presented, the story has a very heavy A Star is Born vibe. Star whose career is in decline gets involved with newcomer. Newcomer lifts both of their careers for a while, but soon the newcomer’s star eclipses that of the older star. He can’t handle the role swap, sabotages things, and it all ends badly. That makes for great drama, but isn’t the truth. As the truth is fascinating, and they are still reworking this as time goes on, the authors might explore bringing back some of the accuracy.
Or they might not. After all, this is theatre — and on the stage or the screen, the real story is subservient to the story that works. The story here does work: it catches your attention, entertains you, and leaves you caring about the characters at the end. After all, if I didn’t care about the characters, would I have researched what really happened to them? I think that’s a testament to not only the story, but the director (Taylor Hackford (FB)) working with the leads to bring the characters to life, and the leads believing in these characters and being so comfortable with these characters and their personas that they can inhabit them.
In the lead performance positions were Anthony Crivello (FB) as Louis Prima, and Vanessa Claire Stewart (FB) as Keely Smith. Stewart is a co-author, and has been performing this character since it was created — she has learned how to personify Smith so well that even the real-life Smith was impressed. Crivello came into the production after the rework for Chicago. Given how the story is written, he has loads to do, and does them well. Having not seen the real Prima, I cannot speak to his mannerisms (although I’ve read elsewhere that he does capture them right). He doesn’t duplicate Prima’s voice, but comes off as a convincing Prima. More importantly, there is chemistry between Stewart and Crivello that is transmitted from the stage to the audience. These two are having fun with these roles, and that fun is broadcast. Both sing great, and capture the vibe well. I look forward to the day that there is an available cast album from this show (there evidently was a cast album from the 2009 version of the show)‡.
[‡ Note: DO NOT go to the original “Lewis and Keely” show website — it appears to have been hacked. I have informed the show via their Facebook page, and I’ll update this if I receive confirmation it has been cleared.]
Supporting the leads are Erin Matthews (FB) (as the “Duchess” and all the other female roles) and Paul Perroni (FB) (as Frank Sinatra and all the other male roles). Matthews is never in a single character for long enough for the characterization to stick with the audience, although I could swear at one point there were two additional actresses on stage with both Stewart and Perroni (I’m recalling the scene where Smith is recording her album at Reprise, and there are two female backup singers), so there must be one additional acress who is not credited — either that, or Matthews is talented enough to be two places at once (a handy skill). Perroni does a good job of capturing Sinatra’s swagger and tone.
Another major group of actors is the on-stage band. As with Pump Boys and Dinettes, I Love My Wife, and a few other shows, the band does more than just play instruments. They inhabit characters to some extent, and certainly sing in addition to playing. Luckily, these are all top notch musicians. They consisted of: Paul Litteral (FB) [Musical Director / Trumpet], Jeremy Kahn (FB) [Performance Conductor / Piano], Nick Klingenberg (FB) [Bass], Colin Kupka (FB) [Tenor Sax / “Sam Butera“], George McMullen (FB) [Trombone / “Jimmy”], Dan Sawyer (FB) [Guitar / Sax / Clarinet / Flute / Piccolo / “Doc”], and Michael Solomon/FB [Drums]. I’ll particularly highlight Kupka’s sax work, which was great, as well as Litteral’s trumpet, Kahn’s bass… oh hell, they were all spectacular and made the show what it is! I’ll note that Kupka, Solomon, and Litteral have been with the show since Sacred Fools days. Richard Levinson (FB) was the music consultant.
With respect to movement: I cannot speak to whether Crivello accurately captured Prima’s moves, and Stewart captured Smith’s. I do know that choreographer Vernal Bagneris is a legend (I remember him from One Mo’ Time), so I’m sure he captured the moves right. They were certainly entertaining. Erin Matthews (FB) was the dance captain.
Turning to the remaining production and creative credits: The scenic design by Hershey Felder (FB) and Trevor Hay (FB) was simple: the band on stage, and a number of large circles upon which projections by Christopher Ash were used to establish place. Combine that with a few set pieces, and voila. About the only quibble is one scene where Prima received a call on a phone, and the phone was some beige thing that obviously had a DMTF dial (when, given the era, it should have been some form of pulse rotary telephone). The sound design by Erik Carstensen (FB) was clear and crisp, which is amazing given how often the performers were touching mic cables and such. The lighting design by Christopher Ash worked well to establish mood. The costumes (by Melissa Bruning (FB) assisted by Christianna Rogers (FB)) seemed appropriately period, but my wife noted one nit: Keely’s costumes needed to be hemmed such that their hemline was level with the floor — they were obviously hemmed on a hanger, and not the body. My wife noted that, in that era, hemlines were something that people payed close attention to. Remaining production credits: Meghan Maiya – Production Research; Rebecca Peters/FB – Production Stage Manager.
Louis and Keely – ‘Live’ at the Sahara originated at the Sacred Fools Theatre (FB) — one of Los Angeles’ intimate (i.e., 99 seat or under) theatres. It exists because this unique theatrical ecosystem exists in LA. These theatres are typically not commercial — they exists for the artists, by the artists, and generally have the mission to express and exercise the theatrical arts. This ecosystem has been under seige from Actors Equity, who wants to treat it as a commercial ecosystems that needs to provide actors a living in isolation from other venues. This notion — of each “profit center” standing alone — is what killed the Las Vegas of Louis and Keely’s days. Los Angeles is a unique market where actors can make their living in numerous non-theatrical venues — movies, TV, commercials, modeling, voiceovers, etc. — and can used the theatrical stage as a way to hone their craft, to get exposure, to network with other actors, professionals, and creatives. This is the same way the shows and lounges brought people into the casinos and were loss leaders — the money was made elsewhere. I say this as a long-time audience member: Los Angeles treasures this ecosystem. Right now, closed door negotiations are taking place between the sides involved. Let’s hope that the leadership comes up with the answer that Los Angeles’ talent and creatives need and want.
Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara (FB) continues at the The Geffen Playhouse (FB) through January 17, 2016. Tickets are available through the Geffen online ticket office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. I smiled all through this show and left the show happy. What more could you want from a show?
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P.S.: Click here to see my summary of the Theatre I attended in 2015.
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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: Theatre continues next week with “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB) on January 16; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start. However, given there has been no announcement, I feel safe booking all weekends in January (I’ll note that if there is no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP). February starts with a hold date for “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The rest of the February schedule is empty except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). I expect to be filling out February as December goes on. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.