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L.A. small-theater hit 'Louis & Keely' makes comeback after six years

Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara” is back on its feet after a six-year interruption and is headed for the Geffen Playhouse and Laguna Playhouse this winter in what’s billed as a new production that includes Taylor Hackford as director and Vanessa Claire Stewart as pop singer Keely Smith.

The show, focusing on the buoyant music and marital mishaps of Smith and her wild man 1950s bandleader husband, Louis Prima, is one of the notable commercial successes that L.A.’s small theater scene has generated in the last 10 years.

After initial runs at the Sacred Fools Theater and the Matrix Theatre in 2008, it got booked into the Geffen Playhouse’s 132-seat Audry Skirball Kenis Theatre for a five-week run in early 2009 that turned into a six-month stand.

It will return to the Geffen from Dec. 30 to Jan. 17, 2016, this time in the larger Gil Cates Theater. The Laguna Playhouse will present the show Feb. 24-March 27, 2016.

Hershey Felder, no stranger to the art of envisioning historic musicians onstage, is now the producer and also pitches in as scenic designer.

Among the changes since 2009 are the female lead’s name, the then Vanessa Claire Smith having since married actor French Stewart. Instead of Jake Broder, who co-wrote the show and starred as Prima in its L.A. iterations, Anthony Crivello has stepped in. He won a 1993 Tony Award for featured actor in a musical – “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which starred Chita Rivera.

In 2009 a former producer of "Louis & Keely" had announced that Stewart and Broder had split with Hackford, whose credits as a film director include “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Ray,” and the Chuck Berry/Keith Richards concert film, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

The two actor-writers were said to be retooling the musical for a tour and a hoped-for landing on Broadway. Those things never happened.

Felder, who has mounted his own one-man shows about George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Frederic Chopin and others, and heads a production company that handles other shows, said he got a call from his friend Hackford about a year and a half ago, asking if he’d be interested in remounting “Louis and Keely” and developing a tour of theaters that regularly book Felder’s own performances.

Whatever had led to the 2009 split had been mended, Felder said in an interview Tuesday. “They got together on pushing the show forward some more, smoothing out some issues and new scenic elements.”

The new production debuted in April at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago, where Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones had a reaction comparable to Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty’s in 2009: You can’t beat the music and the performances, but the storytelling needs some work.

Felder said that other tour stops beyond Southern California have been booked but not yet announced. Broadway no longer is necessarily the dream destination.

“My theory as a producer is let’s make it a really good show, and if it ends up on Broadway because that makes sense, then yes. Other than that, let's do a great show at the Geffen and Laguna and the very many other theaters this is being planned for.”

Another musical about Prima and Smith, “The Wildest!,” premiered in 2004 at a theater in Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County. It was co-written by Prima and Smith’s two daughters, helped by Randy Johnson, whose “A Night With Janis Joplin” opens Wednesday at the Pasadena Playhouse. The earlier show didn’t gain the same kind of traction as “Louis & Keely.”

During the Geffen run of “Louis & Keely,” the bandleader’s last wife, Gia Malone Prima, who had replaced Smith in the act after her 1961 divorce from Prima, complained publicly about the Broder/Stewart/Hackford show, calling it a “totally untrue, disrespectful hatchet job” that unfairly had portrayed her late husband as “crude” and “uneducated.”

Prima died in 1978 after several years in the coma that’s dramatized in “Louis & Keely.” Gia Malone Prima died in 2013.

Mike Boehn
Los Angeles Times
July 21, 2015