Foreground, Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder in Louis & Keely. Photo courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse

LOUIS & KEELY: LIVE AT THE SAHARA Haven't seen this musical study of '50s lounge-act crooners Louis Prima and Keely Smith since its transcendent premiere at Sacred Fools Theatre last year, and oh, is it different. Documentary and Oscar-nominated film maker Taylor Hackford has been busy misguiding writer-performers Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith's musical. Taylor took over from director Jeremy Aldridge, who brought it to life in east Hollywood. Smith and Broder have drafted an entirely new book, added onstage characters – including Frank Sinatra (Nick Cagle) who, along with Broder and Smith, croons a ditty. (As though Cagle can compete with Sinatra's voice, so embedded into the pop culture.) They've also added Prima's mother (Erin Matthews) and other people who populated the lives of the pair. The result is just a little heartbreaking: The essence of what made it so rare at Sacred Fools has been re-vamped and muddied into a comparatively generic bio musical, like Stormy Weather (about Lena Horne) or Ella (about Ella Fitzgerald).

It used to be so much more because it was so much less. What was a kind

of musical poem is now an explanation. What was mysterious is now

explicit, not only in the play but in slide projections.

What made this

musical so rare was the simplicity of its premise: Prima, a lounge act

singer whose act is dying brings in a 16-year-old, Smith, to save his

act. She falls for him;  he tortures her by rebuffing her romantically

and exploiting her off-stage passions on the stage. After they

eventually marry, her talent overshadows his, and the off-stage

jealousy and hostility energizes the stage act. Prima's yearning for

fame leaves him exiled and in a coma, where the play begins and ends. 

This entire story was channelled through the two characters and the

onstage band. Every song, from “Basin Street Blues” to “I've Got You

Under My Skin” was a manifestation of either Prima's quest for

immortality or the jealousies occurring in their partnership. The music

met the text-book definition of how songs are supposed to serve a

musical, to express what can't be said in life. But if Frank Sinatra

grabs the stage to croon a song that comments on their marriage, or

Prima's mother stands ironing stage left, that rarefied bubble is


There was one riveting scene where young Keely Smith

approached one of the musicians for comfort – sliding precariously down

the slope of betrayal. That scene, an illustration of how a story could

be told within the strict confines of a tightly constructed world, is

gone, but so is that world. Hackford clearly never understood or

appreciated the pristine theatricality of what Broder, Smith and

Aldridge had carved. The play's core and tone have been diminished by

the cinematic expanse of a documentary, rife with psychological

theories and the gratuitous appearance of (and scenes with) other

characters. Add to that a tonal shift: The musical's original heart of

darkness has been sprayed over by a larger proportion of upbeat numbers replacing some of the reflective ballads. Gone are “Tenderly/Can't

help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine,” “Come Rain or Come Shine”, and “I've Got

You Under My Skin.” 

The good news is the terrific musicianship, the

musical direction originally by Dennis Kaye and now shared by Broder

and Paul Litteral,  remains as sharp as ever, as are the title

performances. Broder's lunatic edge and Bobby Darin singing style has

huge appeal, while Vanessa Claire Smith has grown ever more comfortable

in the guise and vocal stylings of Keely Smith. It was the music that

originally sold this show, and should continue to do so. With luck,

perhaps Broder and Smith haven't thrown out their original script. 

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.;

Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.;

through April 26. (310) 208-54545. (Steven Leigh Morris)


Check back on Monday after noon for  reviews of  Ibsen's Ghosts, at A Noise Within; Pavel Cerny's Vietnam drama, A Lovely Place For a Picnic at the Whitefire Theatre; Photograph 51 at the Fountain; Paul Mazursky's Sin, A Cardinal Deposed, at the Hayworth; Did You Do Your Homework?, the story of a schoolteacher  written and performed by Aarox Baxton at the Beverly Hills Playhouse; an evening of one-acts at the Santa Monica Playhouse with the umbrella title, Jumping the Median, and Will Eno's Tragedy, A Tragedy at the Garage Theater in Long Beach.

LA Weekly