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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Director Taylor Hackford's production packed the Geffen Playhouse's smaller Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre for nine months in 2009. Now the production is back on the Geffen's mainstage with some enhanced production values and plenty of soul.
Gussied-up scenery or otherwise, Louis & Keely remains a familiar protege-eclipses-her-mentor tale (a la A Star is Born). That take is debatable; Louis Prima's legacy seems to be doing just fine. But the point is moot. With Crivello and Stewart burrowing under the skins of these two Sin City icons, the tale kicks, slams, and occasionally even gets you in the gut.
Prima is our narrator, recounting his ascendency to king of the Vegas lounge scene and the manner in which he won — and lost — his most prized "duchess." A struggling jazzman with his band the Witnesses, the New Orleans band-leader was witnessing his act verge on obsolescence until he auditioned a half-Irish, half-Cherokee teen-ager named Dorothy Keely who was nearly 20 years his junior. She says she knows knows 'Embraceable You," and indeed she does.
The kid had pipes and was eminently moldable by the Svengali-ish Prima. Taking her on the road and renaming her Keely Smith, Prima reconstructed his act around their offbeat chemistry. Together Prima and Smith ended up playing five shows a night on the floor of the Sahara's casino before attracting a larger following and taking over the Conga Lounge. The two also married, with Smith becoming the fourth Mrs. Louis Prima and giving him two daughters.
The more than 20 songs recreated in Louis & Keely mirror the rocky path of their relationship and include era standards like "Them Their Eyes," "That Old Black Magic," "Pennies From Heaven," and "What is this Thing Called Love." We also hear a couple of Prima-written numbers that has him engaging in rapid-fire scatting in Italian or barely decipherable English. Prima viewed himself as an entertainer who would fling himself all over the stage, mug, flirt, and wail, all in the interest of putting on a "damn good show."
Transforming the act to incorporate Smith, Prima essentially made the dark-haired beauty the white-hot lightbulb for his amped-up moth. During many a duet then, you have Smith standing still, looking cool or bored, and chiming in with a lyric or dangerous glance while Prima bops and shimmies around her.
Working with Musical Director Paul Litteral, Hackford not only stages these numbers with considerable pizzazz, he contextualizes them effectively as well. Louis & Keely is every inch a play with music in which the main character loses his identity whenever he is not performing. Louis Prima — the lover, teacher, servant of God and self promoter— every incarnation is on display for all to see five times nightly while battling the bells and bustles of roulette wheels and slot machines. "Save it for the stage," he dismissively tells Smith when she comes to him with important news. And she does. And, predictably, it's a lulu.
When Smith's star ascends, the marriage starts to fall apart. She gets the chance to record a solo album of ballads (produced by Frank Sinatra) and a temporarily solo Prima starts boozing and womanizing. Basically, he breaks her heart and she turns around and returns the favor. If the script is to be believed, Smith only wanted some version of domesticity and was fine with Prima keeping the fame. If so, it largely means her husband is a right out bastard
Whether your allegiance falls to Prima or Smith, Crivello and Stewart are a fireball of a pairing. First appearing (believably) as a teen-ager, Stewart maintains Smith's good-hearted naivete through the character's show-biz education. Smith learns the ropes and hardens ever so slightly, but we never question her devotion. Crivello gets most of the showier vocal work, but Stewart, who has been playing this lady since the show's inception, knows how to knock down a ballad. Her rendering of the broken-hearted Joseph Kozma-Johnny Mercer-Andre Prevert number "Autumn Leaves" is a winner.
Fans of Louis & Keely in its earlier incarnations will no doubt miss the presence of original star and co-author, Jake Broder. But any Border nostalgia should disappear very soon after new Prima Crivello first opens his mouth. Sporting perfect hair, a slightly wolfish million-watt grin and a bullying charisma that is masking something deeper, Crivello commands the performance and the stage. The man is working off a battery pack of energy to get through some of these numbers and Crivello seems to age and wilt before our very eyes as he watches the relationship fall apart. Paul Perroni and Erin Matthews provide strong supporting work as, respectively, Sinatra and a host of women in Prima and Smith's life.
The once intermission-less production has been expanded and runs longer than it did in previous versions. An opened-up stage (designed by producer Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay) nicely provides space for Christopher Ash's projections. Musically speaking, Litteral's seven-piece band keeps the action on the upbeat. Things may not always be so upbeat for our titular couple, but with Crivello and Stewart, a little misery still makes for some mighty sweet music.