Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ At The Sahara is back, but if you think the current Laguna Playhouse might be just a carbon copy of the original 2008 Sacred Fools production, or its much-tweaked 2009 Geffen Playhouse transfer, or even of the 2015 Chicago production that transfered to the Geffen over New Years, think again. Louis Prima and Keely Smith are indeed back, but fresh and new and more crowd-pleasingly sensational than ever.
Gone is the original production’s surrealism, replaced by a brand-new-for-Laguna opening/closing sequence that has Keely making her Carnegie Hall debut while flashing back to the events that brought her to the stage of one of the world’s most celebrated concert halls.
We (and Keely) first meet Italian-American Louis at age thirty-seven, his career in the dumps (as is the big-band sound that made him a star), that is until he crosses paths with sixteen-year-old Dorothy Keely in the late 1940s … and the rest is history.
Talk about a match made in nightclub heaven. New Orleans-born Louis couldn’t have been wilder or more boisterous, while poker-faced Keely deadpanned her way through the act, singing the vocals in her rich, smoky voice.
Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ At The Sahara makes the audience flies on the wall to Louis and Keely’s on-and-offstage relationship. (Take for instance the moment when Keely, having complained that Louis never looks at her in real life as he does on stage, suddenly finds herself staring a diamond engagement ring in the eye.)
Later, when Keely’s popularity begins to overshadow Louis’ and his penchant for philandering once again takes hold, cracks appear in their relationship.
When Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ At The Sahara made its 99-seat debut eight years ago, it was just the duo and the band onstage. The Geffen reprise had the two stars joined by a quartet of supporting actors playing various characters in Louis and Keely’s life including Keely’s mother, assorted girlfriends, club owners and patrons, and most significantly, Frank Sinatra.
The Laguna Playhouse splits the difference, with stars Anthony Crivello and Vanessa Claire Stewart (who co-wrote with director Taylor Hackford and original Louis Jake Broder) joined by actors Erin Matthews and Paul Perroni (with band members Colin Kupka, George McMullen, and Dan Sawyer stepping into cameos) … and it works.
As for having Sinatra around instead of the original production’s stand-in, it’s fascinating to see how Ol’ Blue Eyes influenced Keely’s professional and (in a case of what’s good for the gander is good for the goose) her personal life as well.
An extra half-hour (and a fifteen-minute intermission) have been added to the show’s original ninety-minute running time, meaning that there are now over two dozen Louis and Keely hits that get performed, including “Them There Eyes,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Embraceable You,” and “Just A Gigolo,” “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “I Wish You Love.”
The Laguna Playhouse cast is pure perfection.
Best Lead Actor Tony winner Crivello is a charismatic wonder as Louis, a whirlwind of manic energy well with a gumbo-licious N’Orleans drawl who ignites the Laguna Playhouse stage as it has perhaps never been ignited before.
As for Stewart, the Best Lead Actress Ovation Award winner is even better than ever, Keely’s deadpan stage persona masking a fiery (and feisty) gal who could give as good as she got, and boy can Stewart sing.
Perroni shines (and croons to Sinatra-like perfection) as a sexy, seductive Frankie, dance captain Matthews delights in one distinctly-wigged cameo after another, and Kupka’s centerstage saxophoning (as the legendary Sam Butera) positively dazzles.
As always, the onstage band is a huge part of the show’s appeal, and nowhere in town will you find a better, more swinging bunch of musicians than musical director/trumpeter Paul Litteral (from the original production) and the show’s sensational Vegas-ready band completed by conductor Kahn, Nick Kleingenberg, Kupka, McMullen, Sawyer, and Michael Solomon, with Vernel Bagneris choreographing some brief but lively dance sequences.
Scenic designers Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay wisely keep the band centerstage at all times, surrounding them with nine big bubble-shaped screens (inspired by the cover of one of Louis and Keely’s LPs) which projection designer Christopher Ash has filled with a kaleidoscope of scene-setting images that take us cross-country through the decades.
Ash’s lighting is Vegas flashy, Erik Carstenen’s sound design expertly mixes voices and instruments, and costume designer Melissa Bruning has created one terrific period outfit after another, with special kudos for charting Keely’s growth as both a woman and a performer and for Matthews’ character-defining garb. (Christianna Rogers is assistant costume designer.)
Now billed as “Taylor Hackford’s Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ At The Sahara,” Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ At The Sahara is presented by Hershey Felder. Rebecca Peters is production stage manager. Meghan Maiya is production researcher.
I’ve now seen three very different productions of Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ At The Sahara … and Version 3.0 is the best of the bunch. Given birth at L.A.’s 99-seat-plan Sacred Fools, nurtured at the Geffen and at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre, and now come to full fruition at Laguna Playhouse, Louis And Keely Live At The Sahara is the crowd-pleasingest show in town.
The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.
March 9, 2106
Photos: Hershey Felder Presents