Vanessa Claire Stewart and Anthony Crivello as 1950s Vegas lounge icons Keely Smith and Louis Prima
Vanessa Claire Stewart and Anthony Crivello as 1950s Vegas lounge icons Keely Smith and Louis Prima
Photos courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

A Real-Life Vegas Love Story Returns as a Heart-Wrenching Lounge Act

There is a palpable sense of multiple journeys at play in Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara, the Geffen Playhouse’s latest incarnation of the rousing and powerfully poignant jukebox biography of 1950s husband-and-wife crooners, the hyperkinetic bandleader Louis Prima (Anthony Crivello) and jazz stylist Keely Smith (Vanessa Claire Stewart).

One is the bittersweet transit of showbiz triumph to tragedy — an archetypal plotline of so many MGM backstage movie musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s (i.e., Lady Be Good; A Star is Born) that writers Stewart, director Taylor Hackford and Jake Broder use to frame Prima and Smith’s tumultuous, May-December romance and their legendary seven-year stand at the Sahara Hotel’s Casbah Lounge in the 1950s.

In the case of Louis & Keely, the template proves particularly apt. The book cannily zeros in on the playfully combative stage dueling between Prima’s infectious, high-energy clowning and Smith’s affectations of deadpan exasperation as the key to both their Vegas success, as well as their undoing when Keely’s soaring solo-recording career unlocks Louis’ dormant insecurities and self-destructive demons.

Then there is the behind-the-scenes journey of the production itself. Originating in 2008 at East Hollywood’s 99-seat Sacred Fools Theater as an acclaimed piece of poetic, stage-musical minimalism, Hackford’s top-to-bottom, 2009 retooling at the Geffen resulted in a less certain version that was itself wholly re-revised (and partially rewritten by the director) for this main-stage edition.

What was once a lean, concert-styled entertainment in which the tumult of the couple’s marriage was conveyed entirely within the confines of their lounge act now resembles a more conventional and Broadway-friendly musical swelled by expository scenes and additional characters (Paul Perroni as Frank Sinatra, Erin Matthews as various other women in Prima’s life) and pumped-up production values (Christopher Ash’s crack lighting and projections; Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay’s sleek scenic design; costumer Melissa Bruning’s expert 1950s shirtwaist dresses).

The good news is that the score of Prima-Smith tunes (played with period precision by the seven-piece band under Paul Litteral’s musical direction) packs just as effective an emotional punch. Stewart is a magnificent Keely, a vocal powerhouse easily on a par with Smith, and her skillful underplaying perfectly complements Crivello’s mesmerizing manic intensity. It’s a chemistry whose sheer seductiveness is only fully revealed in a dramatic finale, when their celebratory duets on “Old Black Magic” and the signature medley "Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain't Got Nobody" are repeated as somber solos and become transformed into surprisingly heart-wrenching songs of regret and separation.

Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through Jan. 17. (310) 208.5454, geffenplayhouse.com.


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