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Louis Prima's widow speaks out against 'Louis & Keely' musical

November 6, 2009 |  4:03 pm


The stage musical “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara” has been a runaway hit with critics and audiences since opening in Los Angeles more than a year ago. It extended its run seven times at the Geffen Playhouse and is scheduled to go on a national tour next year.

But one key person is not happy with the show.

The widow of legendary Las Vegas crooner Louis Prima has come out against the biographical musical, saying that the production is “almost 100% falsehoods” and a “totally untrue, disrespectful, hatchet job” of her late husband.

In a statement issued Friday, Gia Maione Prima said that the musical, which depicts the stormy relationship between Prima and singer Keely Smith, gets certain facts wrong, including the manner in which Prima met Smith and the nature of his death in 1978.

She also said she thinks the show contains racist language toward Italian Americans and depicts her husband in a lewd manner.

Among her points of contention is the musical’s depiction of Prima dying alone after years in a comatose state. “There was never a time during those three years that visitors were restricted from seeing Louis,” said Maione Prima.

She also objects to the show’s portrayal of Prima as “crude” and “uneducated.”

“He was well-educated and he spoke beautifully,” she said.

Sarabeth Schedeen, one of the show’s producers, responded to Prima’s criticism by saying the musical is a celebration Prima and Smith’s lives and that certain elements were dramatized to tell a compelling story.

“We are not telling the life story of the great Louis Prima, but only a slice of that life,” said Schedeen in an e-mail.

Speaking by phone from her home in Florida, Maione Prima acknowledged that dramatization is common in biographical shows and films, but said that “Louis & Keely” crosses the line.

“When it gets to the point when it changes the integrity of his character, I feel it’s time to speak out,” she said.

Maione Prima said she has not been to L.A. to see the musical; she based her opinion on the CD cast album of the Geffen production, which she said sufficiently conveys the music and some of the dialogue.

“Louis & Keely” first opened at the Sacred Fools Theaterre in L.A. in June 2008 and later transferred to the Matrix Theatreer in Hollywood. Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith play the title characters and co-wrote the script.

In March, the show transferred to the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Oscar-winning filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who also re-wrote portions of the script. The show is scheduled to end its run at the Geffen on Sunday.

A publicist for Hackford said he was in China and was not available for comment.

Prima, who is often called the king of the swingers, was married to Smith from 1953 to 1961. The duo performed at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where they became a popular lounge act. Prima married Maione, a singer who was his fifth wife, in 1963. They had two children before Prima died at 67 in New Orleans.

Prima’s widow manages Prima Music LLC and other bodies that license rights to the singer’s music. She said that “Louis & Keely” does not have any licensing agreements or relationships with the estate.

The show licenses music from the Great American Songbook, producers said.

Maione Prima said that she was sent an early draft of the “Louis & Keely” script but refused to give her blessing because of due to what she perceived as the show’s many inaccuracies.

“Louis & Keely” is set to go on a national tour in 2010, though producers have yet to announce cities.

People close to the show have said that there are plans to take it to New York but there has been no official confirmation.

Maione Prima said she has received offers to make motion pictures and stage shows based on Prima’s life. She also said that she is working with a co-author on a “biography-memoir” about Prima.

When asked if she intends to see “Louis & Keely” when it is on tour, she replied, “No, I do not.” But she added: “I am watching what they’re doing.”

-- David Ng

Photo: Louis Prima and Keely Smith, in the 1950's. Credit: File photo / Los Angeles Times

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