Vibrant 'Louis and Keely' captures excitement of bygone musical era

Singer, trumpet player and bandleader Louis Prima may not have the name recognition of Frank Sinatra, but in “Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara,” a stage bio with music, Sinatra is but a supporting character.

That gives fans of theater and pop music a chance to delve into the life of Prima, an all-around entertainer who was an American original. Singer Keely Smith was Prima’s protégé, bandmate and, later, wife. Their life stories were so intertwined that combining them makes perfect sense.

A new Laguna Playhouse staging of the 2008 show, greatly revised in 2009 by film director Taylor Hackford, is a vibrant look at the American pop music scene of the mid-20th century.

Hackford’s direction, Vernel Bagneris’ choreography and Paul Litteral’s music direction are noteworthy, but the two lead performances are the production’s powerful engine. Anthony Crivello and Vanessa Claire Stewart’s dynamic, vigorous portrayals of Prima and Smith push the show over the top into something vivid, exciting and unforgettable.

Written by Stewart, Hackford and Jake Broder, the story is essentially a reworking of “A Star Is Born,” itself a show-biz update of “Pygmalion.”

Prima takes the much younger Smith, born Dorothy Keely, under his wing and begins grooming her for stardom. Her stock starts rising just as his career begins a gradual descent.

Soon, Smith’s fame has completely eclipsed Prima’s. “Louis and Keely” documents how this pressure affects their marriage, lives and personalities.

By the end of “Louis and Keely,” you’ll know more about these two stars and their era than you ever did, the story buoyed by a raft of great standards. Laguna’s stellar seven-man band, and Colin Kupka in particular as explosive sax player Sam Butera, capture the era’s mix of R&B and post-big band jazz.

Creating a perfect look are producer and presenter Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay’s scenic design, which uses photos and film to imbue the staging with a vintage Kodachrome aura, and Melissa Bruning’s detailed period costumes, which similarly bolster the story and its characters.

It’s 1978, and Keely Smith (Stewart) is at Carnegie Hall eulogizing her recently deceased “former partner.” The action then flashes back to 1950. Prima is seeking a new female vocalist, and teen-age Dorothy Keely is eager to sing for him.

The girl’s voice is nothing special until Prima instructs her to drop her pitch by an octave and slow the tempo to a sensual crawl. It’s a fantastic, star-making audition, and the duo are on their way, Dorothy having been given a new stage name by her partner.

The story’s initial romantic tension evolves from Keely’s attraction to the married Prima, who insists on an all-business relationship with her. He gives in, but their happiness is short-lived: Keely can’t resist the attentions of Sinatra (Paul Perroni), while Louis reverts to his typical extramarital carousing.

Stewart and Crivello are exceptional, disappearing into their roles. Stewart’s straight dark hair, noble profile and intense presence lend her the appearance of Anjelica Huston, and she traces an affecting arc from eager, naïve teen to willing pupil to assured, self-possessed vocalist, a consummate professional with poise and undefinable presence.

Crivello captures Prima’s honey-dripped Southern drawl and on-stage, loosey-goosey frivolity. More important is the fact that Prima had fun with the music itself – not with Keely, and not with us, but with the material.

That was his secret, and it’s one of the keys to Laguna’s entertaining production. Crivello mirrors his character’s mania for show business. That mania, an unerring savvy for what works with an audience, what doesn’t, is the driving force of his memorable take on Prima.

To Louis, only what happened on stage was real. To Keely, performing was a passion but no substitute for real life. That dichotomy is mined and explored by the script, which shows how it gradually drove a wedge between the two.

Erin Matthews impressively essays a barrage of dissimilar roles, most of them women involved with Prima. While Perroni is fine in various roles, including Prima’s older brother Leon, he’s simply miscast as Sinatra, his look, voice and mannerisms failing to evoke that legendary presence.

A more potent Sinatra could only add to this already stellar production’s many considerable virtues. Chief of these is the show’s ability to effect the kind of intimate show-biz bio normally told through the medium of film, but one that cannily exploits all the strengths of live performance.

Eric Marchese, Contributing Writer
Orange County Register
March 2, 2016