'Louis & Keely "Live" at the Sahara': Theater Review

Vanessa Claire Stewart and Anthony Crivello in 'Louis & Keely "Live" at the Sahara'
Not even miscast actors and a bloated running time can torpedo this crowd-pleasing two-hander.

Director Taylor Hackford and a top-notch cast resurrect the small-scale show that became a surprise success.

The story of how Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara reached its current incarnation is almost as compelling as the turbulent couple of the title. In 2008, when the two-person show was selling out at Los Angeles equity-waiver venue Sacred Fools, director Taylor Hackford caught a performance and approached co-author and star Vanessa Claire Stewart (who plays Keely Smith) about beefing up the storyline. A year later, they opened at the Geffen in a run that was extended multiple times. Critics raved, though not about Hackford’s changes. The team parted company when the show closed, but have now reunited for the current production with Broadway veteran Anthony Crivello playing Prima. The result is a passionate effort that only partly measures up.

A New Orleans jazz figure not quite as prominent as that other Louis, Prima made a name for himself composing the classic "Sing, Sing, Sing" for Benny Goodman. But by the time he met Smith in 1948, he was pushing 40 and she was just 17, with a finger on the pulse of the next generation.

A two-week stint playing amid slot machines and crap tables on the casino floor at the Sahara turned into a lucrative contract when Prima and Smith become the toast of the town, even drawing such stars as Frank Sinatra (Paul Perroni), who took a personal interest in Smith. A recording session in L.A. led to her first solo album, but as Smith took over as headliner, Prima succumbed to a bruised ego and a bottle of whiskey. As they played several shows a night, jealousy and infidelity inevitably became woven into their lounge act.

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Many of the duo's greatest hits are presented, including "That Old Black Magic," "Just a Gigolo" and "Hey Boy, Hey Girl." In fact, there might be too many songs; three have been added since the Chicago run earlier this year, stretching the running time to 140 minutes.

If you don’t believe that directing is 90 percent casting, then look no further than Crivello (a 1993 Tony winner for Kiss of the Spider Woman) as Prima. While both actor and character are Sicilian, the former is tall and lean with blue eyes, bearing little resemblance to the musician. Luckily, Crivello’s voice is as solid as ever, even if he barely approaches Prima’s high-pitched rasp. But although he constantly refers to Gabriel as his trumpet-playing muse, he never even picks up the instrument of which Prima was a master.

Credit is due choreographer Vernel Bagneris, who helped Crivello master the silly shuffle of Prima’s dance moves, and even greater credit to the star himself. He gamely leaves it all on the stage despite being an imperfect fit for the role, and his chemistry with Stewart seems genuine. Her black wig helps her capture the look of Smith, and although she doesn't have a strong voice, she perfectly emulates the singer’s phrasing. Stewart excels in the show’s dramatic scenes, traversing the arc from ingenue to professional, as well as from girl to woman.

The actors are smartly dressed in Melissa Bruning’s costumes, and the production has little problem summoning the era as well as the spirit of the couple, even if no one would mistake them for the real thing.

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Louis & Keely is presented as a nightclub act, with scenery projected on disc-shaped screens and an occasional piece of furniture rolled in to signify a dressing room or their Las Vegas home. The band, led by Paul Litteral, is ever-present upstage, with tenor saxophonist Colin Kupka often straying to exchange a few notes with Prima, riffing off the latter's vocals. 

Aside from An Officer and a Gentleman, Hackford might be best known for his Oscar-winning biopic Ray, which despite its success is a by-the-numbers narrative following singer Ray Charles from humble roots to fame to substance abuse to penance. So maybe it's no wonder that he insists on employing a similarly stale A Star is Born structure here. A Prima fan since childhood, his passion shows in his persistence. But maybe that little production at the 90-seat theater that became a surprise hit back in 2008 didn’t need the plotting and additional songs. Maybe it was fine just the way it was.

Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Westwood
Cast: Anthony Crivello, Vanessa Claire Stewart, Paul Perroni, Erin Matthews
Director: Taylor Hackford
Playwrights: Vanessa Claire Stewart, Taylor Hackford, Jake Broder
Set designer: Hershey Felder, Trevor Hay
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning
Lighting & projection designer: Christopher Ash
Sound designer: Erik Carstensen
Music director: Paul Litteral
Choreography: Vernel Bagneris
Presented by Hershey Felder, The Geffen Playhouse