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Review: 'Louis & Keely' at the Geffen Playhouse

March 23, 2009 |  1:15 pm

Louiskeely

He’s an Italian American jack-in-the box with unerring instincts for scat and swing. She’s a pageboy bob with perfect pitch and a cool-as-a-cucumber delivery. Together, their lounge act diverted the casino herds in the 1950s, inspiring the Rat Pack and leading the way to Sonny & Cher.

“Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara,” last year’s musical sensation performed and written by Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, is back in a revamped version of the show about the novelty jazz duo, Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Newly arrived at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater under the direction of filmmaker Taylor Hackford, the production sounds better than ever in its new home, which has been transformed into a quasi-nightclub space that will have you happily mistaking Westwood Village for the Vegas strip.

I enjoyed the show when I saw it last summer at the Sacred Fools Theater (it subsequently moved to the Matrix Theater in the fall). But it’s been a while since I found myself swaying from beginning to end in my seat, unable to sit still as the terrific seven-piece band, front-loaded with fabulous horns, kept the room aloft. And it’s as a concert musical that “Louis & Keely” thoroughly captivates — the thrilling rise of an act and the inevitable collapse of a marriage told through the flowing feeling of seemingly improvisatory riffs.

Less successful is the way the piece has been dramatically tweaked here and there to resemble a bio-pic. Various projected settings, including a silly-looking golf course and a few new characters, most notably (and ineffectively) Frank Sinatra (a casual Nick Cagle), attempt to expand the work’s sight lines and scope. Hackford seems to be testing whether the material has the makings of another “Ray,” the Oscar-winning film he directed on the life of singer Ray Charles. (It might, but a movie would entail starting from scratch.)

The strength of “Louis & Keely” doesn’t lie in its narrative (or potential cinematic) breadth but rather in its performance intensity. The good news is that, despite the groping around for new dramatic possibilities, Hackford is loyal to the work’s theatrical core. The newly added clumsy scenes replacing the old clumsy scenes aren’t allowed to overshadow that old black magic of the couple’s act. Hearing “Embraceable You,” "Just a Gigolo,” or “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” miraculously clears the air of all the false starts and awkward missteps.

Louis

Better still, Hackford gets more disciplined work out the leads, particularly Broder, whose dervish energy and profuse sweat haven’t abated, yet who is less anarchic, more strategically deployed than before. It’s amazing, given the physical (and ethnic) differences, how well Broder succeeds in conjuring Prima’s frenetic style — the melange of Italian zaniness, New Orleans jazz, and big-band pizazz, wired by a desperate insecurity that could only be appeased by regular applause and constant women. (Erin Matthews quick-changes to give us a sense of the adoring floozy hordes.)

Having recently discovered the assured wonder of Keely Smith’s style, I’m more taken by this tribute to her than worried that the actress impersonating here isn’t as singular a vocalist. Whenever a distinctive musical artist is portrayed, there’s going to be a gap in the talent quotient. (If geniuses were so easily duplicated, they wouldn’t deserve being immortalized in this way.) And Smith (no relation to Keely) has an appealingly tender stage presence, an attention-grabbing voice and an ability to make lyrics pierce through their listener.

What’s especially moving about the work is the way it shows how two people can be so professionally right for each other and personally so wrong (cue Keely’s tear-jerking rendition of “Autumn Leaves”). Louis was raised to be a stage animal. His mama taught him, “Play pretty for the people and you will have famiglia. Amore. Always.” And he seems to have judged his value by headline billings and lucrative contracts.

Keely needed a Svengali to tinker with and launch her talent. But emotionally, she was relatively uncomplicated. She desired a normal life with a husband and kids, albeit one in which she was performing two shows a night to the cocktail crowds. She wanted love and found fame; Louis wanted fame and found he was incapable of steady love.

But what a memorable musical blend they achieved, two disparate interpretive approaches to song harmonizing into pure originality. Of course it had to end some day. And after Keely’s more traditional gifts snared Sinatra’s eye and ear, her growing stardom, which was both abetted and resented by Louis, signaled that a romantic forever wasn’t meant to be.

The production containing this happy-sad tale is by and large vividly pulled off. Joel Daavid’s sets and projections are most effective when they colorfully situate us in a club. Anne Militello’s lighting and Lindsay Jones’ sound design intensify the performing atmosphere. And Melissa Bruning’s costumes help establish the right retro tone. But it’s the snazzy live music that lifts “Louis & Keely” into a realm of tingly exuberance.

-- Charles McNulty

"Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 3:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; $55 to $65; (310) 208-5454; running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Photo: Nick Cagle, from left, Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith. Credit: Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times.

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