Louis And Keely are back in town at NoHo’s El Portal Theatre with A Vegas Holiday! Songs From “Live At The Sahara,” an evening of the hits that made stars of Louis Prima and Keely Smith.  They’re also the songs that made Louis And Keely: Live At The Sahara one of L.A. musical theater’s greatest success stories in recent years.

A smash hit initial run at Sacred Fools, an SRO return engagement at the Matrix, and most recently eight months of a significantly rewritten and enlarged production at the Geffen—L.A. has rarely seen anything quite like Louis And Keely: Live At The Sahara, the multiple-award-winning bio-musical which has made local stars of its creators Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder.

A Vegas Holiday! Songs From “Live At The Sahara” does precisely what its title suggests.  Taking the songs that turned the real-life Louis & Keely into household names, it recreates a live performance at the famed Vegas night spot minus the plot threads of previous Louis & Keely shows.  A couple dozen songs. A seventy-five minute nightclub act.  Entertainment pure and simple.

Though it may be helpful to have seen either the original Louis And Keely: Live At The Sahara or its Geffen rewrite, A Vegas Holiday stands on its own, an hour and a quarter spent with two major Vegas stars of the 1950s and 60s—Louis, the extroverted big-band leader turned nightclub headliner and Keely, his deadpan costar and real life wife.

The same sensational band that backed up Louis And Keely at Sacred Fools, the Matrix, and the Geffen are back in swinging form, opening the evening with a big band overture and solos from each band member—Paul Litteral (trumpet), Richard Levinson (piano), Nate Light (bass), Michael Solomon (drums), Brian Wallis (trombone), Colin Kupka (sax), and Dan Sawyer (guitar, sax, clarinet, flute, piccolo, etc.).

Then it’s Louis Prima And The Witnesses opening with “Pennies From Heaven” (sax solo by Kupka), “Them Their Eyes,” and (because holidays make Louis nostalgic for New Orleans) “Basin Street Blues.” Following band intros (and Louis’ comment that “they obey the first rule of the band, ‘Dig me hard,’“), it’s time for Miss Keely Smith to make her entrance, though not until a bit of offstage squabbling between husband and wife has run its course.

“You know her, you know her smile,” quips Louis, and we laugh because Keely’s unsmiling poker face was her trademark.  Then it’s “Embraceable You,” “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” and “That Old Black Magic,” songs that allow the fabulous Broder and Smith to show off the magic that has made them L.A. celebs, just as they made Prima and Smith Vegas stars.

Next on Louis and Keely’s set list are “The Bigger The Figure” (featuring the now politically incorrect lyric “I’ve got a woman as big as a house, yes sir”), “Tenderly” (which Keely sings to Louis’ whispered cues), and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” ( speeded up to quadruple time). Then it’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Louis clowning as usual), followed by “Angelina” (the band singing out the refrain “Ti Voglio Bene” [=”I love you” in Italian] before segueing into the song’s “Zooma Zooma” finale.)

An actual ‘50s/’60s Vegas Louis & Keely show would doubtless have had celebrities in attendance, and Holiday In Vegas is no exception, with heartthrob-handsome  Luca Ellis a vocal dead-ringer for Frank Sinatra.  Ellis and Smith duet “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” (a song Frank recorded with Keely on his 1959 “Come Dance With Me” LP), next Ol’ Blue Eyes solos “Almost Like Being In Love,” and finally Louis and Frank have a “winner takes Keely” scat-singing competition to “Honeysuckle Rose.”

Despite Christmas wreaths adorning the bandstands, the title Holiday In Vegas is a bit of a misnomer, as only one seasonal favorite makes its appearance, but it’s a great one, Keely serenading a Santa-capped Louis with a sexy “Santa Baby.”

“Falling Leaves,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” “Just A Gigolo,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Don’t Worry About Me,” “I’m In The Mood For Love,” and “Jum Jive An’ Wail” complete the evening’s set, prompting a standing ovation as the curtain falls.

Broder and Smith are, as ever, exceptional talents whose performances go far beyond mere imitation. Major kudos are also in order for co-musical directors Litteral and Broder and the best Vegas band in town. A Vegas Holiday! Songs From “Live At The Sahara” is a terrific send-off for “Louis And Keely” as they begin the next leg of their journey from their intimate theater roots towards the Great White Way.

El Portal Theatre – Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 19, 2009
Photos: David Clark Miller

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