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Taylor Hackford swings from film to stage to direct "Louis & Keely"

February 11, 2009 |  3:10 pm

Filmmaker Taylor Hackford takes on his first public, professional stage directing job It isn't often that a Hollywood eminence sets out to make a film, but winds up doing it as a stage musical instead. Taylor Hackford, known for his biographical features about Chuck Berry ("Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n" Roll"), Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba") and Ray Charles ("Ray"), says his vision for another '50s-rooted showbiz saga, about the Las Vegas lounge duo, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, unexpectedly jumped from the screen to the stage on a hot August night in Hollywood.

In the first professional public stage-directing gig of his career, Hackford will mount a retooled version of "Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara," which was a critical and box office hit last year in two local 99-seat houses: Sacred Fools Theater and the Matrix Theatre.

Hackford has rewritten the book with the show's co-stars and co-creators, Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, and rented out the Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater for a March 18-April 26 run. Recession-driven budget woes had left the Geffen's 132-seat second stage dark and available for what Hackford sees as a chance to spend at least six weeks developing and debugging the show in hopes of taking it to further glory. The film is still a long-range objective, he says, but for now the play's the thing.

It became so when Hackford ventured to Sacred Fools after reading strong notices for "Louis & Keely."

Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder performing last year in Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, at Sacred Fools Theatre The director long had been a fan of Prima, who went from early stardom as a 1930s swing bandleader and songwriter, to a 1950s revival paired with his much younger wife, Smith. The marriage and performing partnership broke up during the early 1960s. Prima died in 1978, after more than two years in a coma caused by a brain tumor. About two years ago, Hackford met with Smith in L.A. to discuss making a biographical film. He found her likeable and "incredibly candid," sharing previously untold tales.

Impressed by the sweat-soaked stage performance of writer-actors Smith (who is not related to her character and namesake) and Broder, Hackford asked if he could get involved with their show. They liked his ideas for reworking the storytelling, and together with Hackford have revised the book with an eye toward a more factual -- and dramatic -- narrative.

Two additional actors, Nick Cagle and Erin Matthews, will play various roles opposite the co-stars, and the music, as before, will be fueled by a seven-member, onstage band. The song sequence has been rejiggered and expanded, from 17 to 19 numbers.

"If the show clicks, we'll see what the future is," says Hackford. "It's too soon to say we're going to ask all these Broadway angels to come" in hopes of raising the $10 million or more it typically takes to open a Broadway musical. "We'll try to touch an audience and see how the show plays." If it touches off enough ticket demand, the six-week run could be extended indefinitely.

Hackford directed a workshop last year in New York, for a proposed stage-musical adaptation of "Leap of Faith," a 1992 film, fired by gospel music, that starred Steve Martin as a charlatan faith-healer. The director says scheduling problems prevented him from continuing with that project. Meanwhile, he's trying to develop an extreme rarity -- a biographical film about a playwright, Tennessee Williams.

The Geffen box office, (310) 208-5454, will start selling tickets for "Louis & Keely" on Friday;  online sales through geffenplayhouse.com and Ticketmaster begin next week. 

  -- Mike Boehm

Photos: Taylor Hackford (top); Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder as Keely Smith and Louis Prima

Photo credits: Damon Winter/LAT (Hackford); Haven Hartman/haven hartman (Smith and Broder)

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