Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara -- Theater Review

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Last year, "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara," written by and starring the dynamite duo of Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, premiered at Los Angeles' Sacred Fools Theater Company and went on to garner four Ovation nominations.

For this new production at Geffen Playhouse's intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, director Taylor Hackford -- whose films includes treatments of musical legends Richie Valens and Ray Charles -- joins forces with Broder and Smith to create a musical spectacular.

Of course, the Louis Prima and Keely Smith that Smith and Broder have created are not entirely the Louis and Keely that audiences in the 1950s knew. Despite giving the role every ounce of some amazing charisma and power, Broder is less raucous, less raunchy (or at least raunchy in a more manicured way), and his intonation less in-your-face Italian than what was a common stereotype 50 years ago. The multitalented Smith, vocally stunning herself but working in a less go-go mode, is less sexy, less sultry than her role model. And both Smith and Broder arguably are less adult than late-night/early-morning Vegas in the '50s would have expected.

Perhaps it's better that way; originals always are hard to replicate, let alone replace. And why would such talented performers want to be typecast as just the two who did the Prima and Smith thing? Together with Hackford, they create an act so brilliant and spontaneous that, though it's somewhat different in kind from the original, it gives nothing away in entertainment value.

The evening is threatened more by the ordinary quality of their acting skills and a script overloaded with psychobabble about an angel and a mother (not the same). As the second half of a fast-moving 100 minutes winds down, the whole cast also spends a lot of what seems like unnecessary time traipsing from one part of the stage to another.

The evening's success belongs also to the talents of the seven-piece band that tears up the small Kenis stage, takes over musically for Smith and Broder with consummate virtuosity and thrills and even puts in some decent acting when required.

The parts given to Nick Cagle and Erin Matthews -- who are called on to play a mostly transient variety of characters ranging from honeys, ex-wives, sleazy producers and even Frank Sinatra -- seem at odds with their bland styles. The whole cast gets and responds athletically to Vernel Bagneris' exuberant choreography.

Not having seen the original, it's hard to know how much director Hackford brings to the new production, which is presented as a major revision. It feels like a labor of love, which is good, and might eventually wind up -- considering Hackford's track record -- as the prelude to an even more ambitious biographical treatment.

Venue: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through April 26)
Cast: Vanessa Claire Smith, Jake Broder, Nick Cagle, Erin Matthews
Book: Roger O. Hirson
Writers: Vanessa Claire Smith, Jake Broder
Director: Taylor Hackford
Choreographer: Vernel Bagneris
Set/projection designer: Joel Daavid
Lighting designer: Anne Militello
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning
Sound designer: Philip Lindsay Jones