He’s a crooner whose career has not really quite jelled, and she is a 17-year-old with stars in her eyes and ambitions to become a big band singer.
As he arrives at yet another lounge, he looks a bit shopworn until she bops up on the stage, pony-tailed, saddle-shoed, wearing a prim white blouse and pleated skirt.
Meet Louis Prima, portrayed by Tony Award winner Anthony Crivello, and Keely Smith, embodied by Vanessa Claire Stewart, set to make magic in “Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara.”
The musical bopping at the Laguna Playhouse through March 27 is produced by Hershey Felder, who’s created bio-musicals on other famous composers, and Trevor Hay.
“You can go to jail for that,” bellows Paul Perroni, who portrays Louis’ brother, addressing the gleam in bro’s eye at the sight of the teenager. Getting that New York Italian character down just so, the exchange prepares the audience for the wild ride of what will become the May/December pairing of two disparate entertainers. What may have been a tight professional team in private unravels with the onset of commercial success. Together though, they put the Las Vegas lounge act into bright neon lights.
It’s a spell-binding production in many ways, including the minimal but clever stage sets designed to give the audience a sense of early 1950’s and ‘60s America.
And then there’s Prima and Keely’s back-up band. Michael Solomon on drums, Dan Sawyer on several instruments including guitar, George McMullen on trombone, Nick Klingenberg on bass, Jeremy Kahn playing piano and conducting and Colin Kupka on tenor sax, really cook.
The ensemble communicates not only musically but exchanges verbal cues much as they might in a real jazz lounge, with Kupka particularly energizing the house with his sound and footwork. It was hard to sit still during “Night Train,” “Angelina” and “That Old Black Magic,” to name a few of the nearly 30 hits performed.
Klingenberg’s bass accompaniment to “Autumn Leaves” is record worthy even if Stewart’s vocals lacked strength in conveying Keely’s heartbreak at Louis’ philandering.
Erin Matthews amusingly embodies his bevy of “duchesses.” Her comedic range also allows her to segue from tight-lipped church marm (portraying Keely’s mother) to sultry New Orleans stripper at the toss of a jacket, a skill not lost on guys in the audience.
Crivello does not miss a beat. He unleashes a gargantuan ego while winning and losing, playing dumps and swanky lounges, marrying and divorcing, and clashing with fellow lounge star, Frank Sinatra. He offers a Tony-worthy performance.
The script written by Taylor Hackford and Jake Broder includes an episode involving a flirtation between Keely and Sinatra, who subsequently throws his weight behind her while leaving Louis out of the equation. Not taking it well, Louis begins an epic skirt-chasing spree that ends in the couple’s divorce. All the while, even though the script here suggests otherwise, the relationship between Smith and Sinatra remained chaste, even if he, at one time, had contemplated marrying her.
The Playhouse Sinatra will present a bit of a problem to those who remember the young crooner as a skinny kid with pipes and the ever-present hat. Here, Perroni is way too tall and buff, the voice does not resonate and the only thing that has an air of authenticity is the rakish angle of the hat.
Opening night usually includes an introduction before the show from the Playhouse’s artistic and executive directors. Not this time. Not until everyone had taken their final bow, Stewart, still in stage regalia, took to the mic, praising the plethora of sponsors and asking trustees to stand for applause.
This, after Crivello played his heart out in the final scene where he appears as Louis’ ghost at Keely’s long anticipated Carnegie Hall debut. At show’s end, one wonders if, given his extravagant physical and vocal exertion, he’ll hold up until the final curtain. Instead of taking that stunner into the night, the audience was intrinsically left to endure a commercial, aside from the offered glasses of champagne.
Even so, the show mesmerizes by revitalizing a musical genre that may now pique a new generation’s interest.Daniella WalshLaguna Beach IndependentMarch 3, 2016