Chicago Theater Review: LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 8, 2015

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

MY FAIR SONGBIRD

They were the proverbial strange bedfellows who forged a classic Vegas act. The template for Sonny and Cher, they also held a mirror up to a misfit marriage. But Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara is also a tale of a maker unmade, a Pygmalion outdone by his Galatea just as Henry Higgins gets the slippers of wrath from Eliza Doolittle. Louis Prima and Keely Smith, now wonderfully recreated at the Royal George Theatre, were a very different duo–and not just because of the near-two decades that separated husband and wife partners-in-song. The Svengali-like Prima devised a fascinating chemistry that audiences adored: He would ape the goofball troubadour endlessly trying to win or keep his beloved with histrionic tomfoolery; she was the frigid hipster balladeer, with cropped hair and no smile. Whenever Louis could crack Keely’s coldness, the crowd took it as a personal victory.

LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre in Chicago)

As this kinetic staging by Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford and the 90-minute script by Vanessa Claire Stewart (who plays Keely), Jake Broder and Hackford generously reveals, their onstage adoration was not art imitating life. Like Burns and Allen, they were the proverbial opposites who attract: Prima was a jazz-trumpet giant from New Orleans and a 52nd St. legend as much as a married father figure when he met and mated 17-year-old bobbysoxer Keely at a Virginia Beach watering hole. Prima was famous for his skill at scat and for writing the signature hit “Sing, Sing, Sing” for Benny Goodman, and was infamous for bedding Jean Harlow. Part Cherokee and all American, Smith (the name he gave her) just had big eyes and bigger lungs. She seemed like putty to his sculptor hands. He leaves his wife and seduces Keely’s religious mom (wonderful Erin Matthews) with his cinemascopic charm.

LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre in Chicago)

If the primal Prima didn’t teach the impressionable teen everything she knew, he sure knew how to set her–and thus them–apart from other 50s’ songsters. The Sicilian serenader’s sunny confidence (“Just a Gigolo”) inspired her own cunning cool. With Keely as a “straight woman” foil to his Dean Martin-style clowning, they soon moved from playing seven gigs a night on the casino floor of the Sahara Hotel to headlining at the Congo Room. When they sang “That Ol’ Black Magic,” the real enchantment was their passive-aggressive, approach-avoidance, hot-and-cold amorous imbalance. The opposite of Bobby Darin, they went from a rock ‘n’ roll makeover to suave marquee melodies.

LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre in Chicago)

Soon the Rat Pack became favorite fans–and the chief rat, Frank Sinatra (a smooth Paul Perroni), took a special sexual and professional interest in Keely (the “class” in the “act”). Impressed by her unflappable mystery-making, Old Blue Eyes encouraged her to record as a soloist. Incensed by her own dalliances as much as his drunken liaisons, Keely inevitably had to break up the business, onstage and off, children notwithstanding. It made sense: Love was no longer on the hit list–why live a lie under the lights?

LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre in Chicago)

There’s a ton of truth under new ones in this musical marvel, which had a seven-month bustout engagement at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse. Backed up by Paul Litteral’s beautiful big band, illustrated by vintage projections, framed by producer Hershey Felder’s va-va-voom set design with its dice-covered floor, and pulsating to Vernel Bagneris’s sheer stepsmanship, Louis and Keely is very live indeed at Halsted Street’s “Sahara.” You get the twin pleasures of instant nostalgia–memory making in a very present tense–and being present at the creation.

LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre in Chicago)

Functioning as the dying narrator of his own bittersweet bio, Anthony Crivello delivers goombah greatness as cocky, preening Prima. Vanessa Claire Stewart brings a very deliberate deadpan–and an equally aching vulnerability–to her work-in-progress Keely. When they make music together, each singer’s weaknesses disappear in the other’s strength. The standards simply soar–Gershwin’s gorgeous “Embraceable You,” the infectious “Hey Boy, Hey Girl,” the Latin rouser “Ai, Ai, Ai,” seductive “Night Train,” peppy “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and the truer-than-true “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me.”

LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre in Chicago)

But it’s in the separating solos where you taste the pain when the act (what a great term for a showbiz marriage!) is over. A Pygmalion minus his Muse, Crivello, so charming in “Pennies From Heaven,” erupts in a mad scene worthy of “Rose’s Turn”: His lacerating “I Ain’t Nobody” sings just how he felt without Keely to improve on his original. In turn, her deeply rooted “Autumn Leaves” charts just how much she’s matured from the star who was “born.” Yes, they make music magic but, when they can’t, won’t and don’t, the pain is as palpable as the pleasure was contagious. It’s all there so don’t be square.

LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA (The Royal George Theatre in Chicago)

photos by Charles Osgood Photography

Louis and Keely, Live at the Sahara
The Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted St
Tues-Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on May 17, 2015
for tickets, call 312.988.9000 or visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com
for tour info, visit www.louiskeelyshow.com

for info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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