Friday, November 28, 2008

Sing, Sing, ZING! Louis and Keely sparkle on stage

Up until last Sunday about all I knew about Louis Prima was that he was the big bandleader who bankrupted Primo and Secondo when he didn't show up for the lavish meal they cooked up in the delicious 1996 film Big Night. But since seeing Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, I can't get "Just a Gigolo" out of my head.

Louis & Keely is the creation of Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, pictured at right as Prima and his fourth wife and singing partner Keely Smith. Vanessa and Jake wrote and star in the show, which is directed by Jeremy Aldridge. The production recently won the L.A. Stage Alliance "Ovation Award" for best musical in an intimate theater. Smith, Broder, and Aldridge also were nominated as best actress, actor, and director. And deservedly so.

In Louis & Keely the audience was not at the Matrix, but at the Sahara, where Prima and Smith essentially invented the Vegas lounge act. Suspension of disbelief was pretty easy, as we were really there, with not just the two leads but a smoking seven-member band, led by sax man Colin Kupka as Sam Butera.

But it's Smith and Broder who are center stage, and they are both brilliant. Vanessa Smith -- not related to Keely -- has a beautiful, sparkling voice and nails Keely's deadpan stage persona, though she gets in the occasional zinger on Prima. Though billed as straight woman and second fiddle, Keely more than holds her own. Broder gives an over-the-top performance as Prima, hyper-kinetic, musically talented, athletic, and sweaty -- we were told he loses seven pounds during each 90-minute performance.

The real Louis & KeelyBetween the marvelous musical numbers we're treated to the often not-so-marvelous off-stage life of the couple (the real ones, pictured at right). Prima was quite a ladies' man. Smith was, after all his fourth wife (he went on to a fifth after Keely bolted the act) and she put up with a lot of philandering over the years. It's hard to imagine where he found the time; they did six shows a night, starting at midnight, while at the Sahara.

They cram two dozen numbers into the show, including "Embraceable You," "I Got it Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Them There Eyes," "That Old Black Magic," "I'm in the Mood for Love," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "I Ain't Got Nobody," and of course "Just a Gigolo." Most poignant is Keely's performance of "Autumn Leaves" near the end of the show. She'd wanted to sing it earlier, but Prima nixed the idea, suggesting that Keely hadn't experienced the proper heartbreak to be able to sing that song with the proper feeling. When she finally does, we at the Sahara know her bags are packed and it's her last with the act.

The music does not drown out the story, which is told as a comatose flashback. The play begins with Prima in a hospital bed -- he was in a coma for three years after surgery on a brain tumor before passing away in 1978. Snapping fingers signal Prima is snapping to life and back on stage, and also indicate the switches from on the boards to back stage. Back in the bed at the end, Prima admits what we know was his regret: he shoulda stuck with number four.

Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara is a truly fantastic production. It is musically entertaining, and it tells an interesting, touching story of two versatile talents.

By the way, though Prima has been gone for 30 years, Keely is still at it. She did a performance of "That Old Black Magic" with Kid Rock at the 2008 Grammys. She also just recently visited the Matrix and caught Louis & Keely.

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