Written by Hollywood luminary Taylor Hackford, Vanessa Stewart (who also plays Keely Smith) and Jake Broder, this musical play brings the story of New Orleans/Vegas entertainer, Louis Prima, and his fourth wife, Smith, (a star in her own right) to a new generation of theater goers, many of whom may not realize who the iconic 50’s duo were.
As important as the story are the storytellers themselves.
Those who don’t know Louis & Keely director, co-writer, and producer Hackford‘s name will surely recognize the Hollywood movies he’s directed: An Officer and a Gentleman (five Academy Award nominations and two Oscars), Against All Odds, White Nights, Everybody’s All-American, Dolores Claiborne, The Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Life, and Ray (six Academy Awards nominations and two Oscars.) These films are just the tip of Hackford’s career iceberg, which also includes award-winning documentaries, Tokyo Festival award winning films and countless other projects, including television and now, live theater. (Being married to Helen Mirren is no small feat in itself.)
As if having Hackford on board wasn’t enough, enter now the producer, Hershey Felder, a theater heavyweight in his own right—award winning actor and storyteller, Steinway concert artist, and Harvard scholar in residence in the Dept. of Music. Felder also designed the set.
Why, at this point in his successful career, doesn’t Hackford just put his feet up and enjoy his spoils? Why would Felder, with such accomplishments in the world of performance and academia take the time for this biopic stage show? It must be for the love of it, because the stage was full of that love on opening night.
The action opens very differently than one might expect—in a hospital room. It doesn’t take long to introduce the audience to Prima via hot jazz and huge personality. Even those previously unfamiliar with Prima, (played by Anthony Crivello with joyful conviction) would be swept up in his legendary charm. Crivello does a wonderful job building intimacy between his character and the audience.
Entering soon after is Stewart in a bathing suit, portraying the historical moment when Keely had originally wanted to audition for Prima’s band at age 17 after visiting the beach on vacation. While Stewart’s entrance seems a bit uninspired, her performance gains momentum through the night. While it’s possible the intention is to allow the character to build and grow, it felt like she still had more under the hood on opening night.
The real Keely Smith’s brother, in the audience for the opening, was certainly inspired by Stewart’s voice. The girl can sing, that’s for sure. Stewart looks the part and definitely sings it. And once the characters’ age difference becomes a non-issue, it’s easy to love seeing her with Crivello, giving audiences “That Old Black Magic” as their onstage chemistry grows with the plot. (A full show summary is on the Royal George site here.)
Outside of the band, the cast is ensemble of four, though it feels like many more than that. Erin Matthews perfectly plays every “non-Keely” female character onstage, from flirty girl, to Keely’s mom, to go-go dancer and more. To the audience’s delight, once Matthews transitions from one character to another onstage in front of its eyes. Kudos to the writers, actress and director making that work without confusing the audience at all.
The other male roles, including Frank Sinatra were brought to life by Paul Perroni, an actor with an impressive theater and film resume. Louis and Keely are less known to younger generations, so there’s less pressure to be exact look-alikes, but although Perroni’s looks aren’t Sinatra-esque, kudos to him for getting the voice and bravado down.
The production is accompanied with a hot, top-shelf onstage band, including sax-man Colin Kupka, who portrayed Sam Butera, the infamous musician who helped launch the band’s 50’s rockin’ sound. Once the sax is introduced, the audience is treated to “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” among other recognizable tunes.
The lack of an intermission is pivotal in keeping the spell of time-travel and the human story from vanishing. Once the audience becomes engaged with the characters, they stayed in that world. Felder’s set design gives simple elegance to the small stage, allowing a club-style intimacy. The use of projections, curtain swags and gliding pre-set floor discs allow for silky smooth scene changes that keep the story moving.
Richard Norwood’s lighting design beautifully punctuates various locations represented on stage. Lighting and projections are key to understanding the changes in some environments while creating the mood with other design elements. Using the same costumes to denote longer time periods, regardless of setting, is brilliant.
The music conveys the story in surprising ways. Co-writer Broder’s musical background serves him well here. There’s a signature song for each of the leads, and both actors and band deliver exactly what’s desired. Using nuance built into the script, score and the sequence of events, when hearing the same songs later, revelations flood the storyline and the audience is sucked into the moment of humanity experienced by the characters.
On opening night, many patrons brought out white hankies to wave at the end, and the cast did likewise as they congaed off the stage during curtain call. Future audiences doing likewise should expect to use them in the traditional way as well, because these artists understand human pain and joy. What starts as great musical fun ends up touching the soul, making this Louis and Keely a must-see.
“Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara” has an open ended run at The Royal George Theatre, 1809 W. Gregory Ave., Chicago. Shows are Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets are on sale at The Royal George Theatre and may be purchased online here, by phone at 312-988-9000 or in person at the box office, 10 am – 6 pm Tuesday through Saturday.