"...glorious... not to be missed... about as perfect as a musical can get."
--Steven Leigh Morris, L.A. Weekly (PICK OF THE WEEK)
Read the Reviews!

Sacred Fools Theater Company presents the World Premiere of...

by Vanessa Claire Smith & Jake Broder
directed by Jeremy Aldridge
produced by Kristine Dickson
Inspired by the True Story of
the Original Vegas Lounge Act

MAY 30 - JUNE 29, 2008
Fri-Sat @ 8pm Sun @ 2pm

Fridays @ 8pm Sat-Sun @ 2pm
8pm Sun 7/20 & 7/27, 8pm Tue-Wed 7/22-23

The music-filled tale of Louis, the legendary King of the Swingers, and his relationship with Keely, his most famed duetting partner - and fourth wife.  Featuring such favorites as That Old Black Magic, Just a Gigolo, I've Got You Under My Skin, Autumn Leaves and more! 

Reservations: (310) 281-8337
or Buy Tickets Online!

CANNOT Extend Beyond July!
Get your tickets NOW!

Franklin R. Levy Award for Musical in an Intimate Theater

Lead Actress in a Musical - Vanessa Claire Smith
Lead Actor in a Musical - Jake Broder
Direction of a Musical
- Jeremy Aldridge

Playwriting - Vanessa Claire Smith & Jake Broder
Direction - Jeremy Aldridge
Music Direction
- Dennis Kaye
Performance in a Musical Production
- Vanessa Claire Smith
Performance in a Musical Production
- Jake Broder

Best Production
Best Direction - Jeremy Aldridge
Music Direction - Dennis Kaye
Lead Performance - Jake Broder

Musical of the Year
Musical Direction
- Dennis Kaye

Musical Performance - Vanessa Claire Smith
Musical Performance - Jake Broder

Thanks to all who supported the show by joining the

Buy Louis & Keely Albums

A portion of all sales benefits Sacred Fools

For Industry Enquiries, write to:

Colin Kupka
Richard Levinson

Brian Wallis
Dennis Kaye
Jeff Markgraf
Michael J. Solomon
"Hollywood" Paul Litteral
Chairman Barnes
Natascha Corrigan

Assistant Director
Stage Manager
Musical Director
Vocal Instructor
Costume/Makeup Designer
Scenic Designer
Lighting Designer
Sound Designer
Production Manager
Graphic Design
Matchbook Design

Associate Producers

Sam Butera/Tenor Sax
Pee Wee/Piano
Doc/Tenor & Baritone Sax
Louis (Understudy)
Keely (Understudy)

JJ Mayes
Suze Campagna
Dennis Kaye
Natascha Corrigan
Kat Bardot
Dave Knutson
Heatherlynn Gonzalez
Jaime Robledo
Hans Gelpke
Haven Hartman
Kiff Scholl
Corey Klemow
Kristine Dickson
Noel Balacuit
Jeremy Aldridge
Jake Broder
Emily Eudy
Supatra Hanna
Rebecca Rhae Larsen
JJ Mayes
Brian Olson

(Skip to the reviews)


Photo by Haven Hartman

Louis & Keely, Together Again
Capturing the volatile chemistry of Prima and Smith was no easy task. Nor was getting it produced.

by Charlotte Stoudt, Special to the Times
July 13, 2008

SHE WAS Martin to his Lewis, a shrug to his stampede. Singers Louis Prima and Keely Smith packed Vegas houses in the 1950s with their droll cabaret show. They were Punch and Judy for the cocktail set, a witty cold war waged between Smith's seeming disdain and Prima's hepcat eagerness. Their chemistry has sparked a vibrant new tribute, "Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara," at Sacred Fools Theater Company.

Writer-performers Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, working with director Jeremy Aldridge and a seven-piece combo, serve up a lounge act that deconstructs itself in mid-performance, a dissonant love story and jazz hit list, all in 90 hyperkinetic minutes of song and dance.

"Louis & Keely" has the go-for-broke vibe of a show that almost didn't happen -- twice. Smith (no relation to Keely), raised in New Orleans, had long wanted to write about fellow Crescent City native Prima, but had never found the right format.

"I was on a total career down-slide," Smith says of her recent years in L.A. "I was mentally preparing myself to move back home to Louisiana. I'd been through a divorce." In fall 2006, she'd given notice from her job mixing drinks at the M Bar, but decided to fill in for one last shift after another bartender got sick.

That evening, Broder was performing "Lord Buckley in Los Angeles," a cabaret about the groundbreaking monologuist who influenced Bob Dylan and many others. "I watched Jake perform and . . . I couldn't believe it: This was my Louis Prima," Smith says. "Jake's agent and manager happened to be sitting at the bar, so I started telling them about my idea."

Broder laughs. "I thought the whole thing was finished -- she even had a flier. Then she told me she hadn't written it yet."

Star-crossed partners

THE FAMOUSLY Italian Prima may be best known for his novelty songs ("Angelina," "Buona Sera") and as the voice of orangutan King Louie in 1967's "The Jungle Book," but he had a wide-ranging sense of musicality. "This guy was like Madonna," raves Broder. "He constantly reinvented himself. He encompasses all of Americana from jazz to vaudeville."

Prima, at 39, was on a career downswing when he added Keely Smith, a 16-year-old Virginian of Irish and Native American descent, to his act. They married a few years later. But the hit duo led a double life: Onstage, the Sicilian wooed the Cherokee to no avail; offstage, it was Smith who tried to keep the relationship together despite Prima's compulsive philandering.

Long after the two split, Prima was diagnosed with a brain tumor and slipped into a coma. For two years, his eyes were open -- doctors believe he could see and hear everything around him -- but was imprisoned in his body, an unthinkable fate for someone as ferociously kinetic as Prima. "After two years, he closed his eyes," Aldridge says. "He lived for another year, then slipped away. That was the kernel of the original idea: What allowed him to let go and die? What was going through his mind in that last moment?"

"Louis & Keely" imagines Prima's consciousness in those final seconds -- his life, lived primarily onstage, flashes before him in a series of quick cuts.

When Sacred Fools member Smith pitched her show to the company, they jumped at it, says Padraic Duffy, who just completed his fourth season as an artistic director. "The story was economical, very clean, and a great way to showcase the music. We just had to figure out a way to raise the money. Musicals are very expensive."

"Louis & Keely" was set to run in November 2007. But just before rehearsals began, the team realized they didn't have sufficient funds to pay the band. "We did everything we could," says Smith. "But things just collapsed."

She went home to Louisiana, but kept rewriting. Her parents recognized the intensity of her dedication to the project and kicked in some cash. Sacred Fools passed a hat and raised enough money to buy her a plane ticket back to L.A. She slept on friends' couches. And kept rewriting. "We wrote a new proposal," she says, "and Sacred Fools still hadn't filled their last season slot."

By spring 2008, the script changed radically. "There were eight drafts," remembers Aldridge. "The first seven were expansive, with long monologues. Jake wasn't satisfied with the story structure. So Vanessa handed over what she had -- and he ripped it right down to the bones. Whereas before the music was on its own track, now it served to move the story along."

Three's the crowd

BRODER, whose credits include playing Amadeus opposite David Suchet on Broadway, and a stint in the Reduced Shakespeare Company, calls the show's rapid-fire aesthetic "constructivist. We cut out the fat." The story, he says, is "a lover's triangle where the third party is the audience."

Aldridge concurs. "Each song is a scene with its own conflict. Take 'Tenderly': It comes after Louis has found Keely dozing between shows with one of the musicians. It could be innocent, but Louis is paranoid. So when they sing, he attempts to control her during the song. She resists. She even mimics his style, taking some of his territory. His reaction? No sharing. It looks like a duet, but it's really a power struggle."

When they finally got to rehearse, the team threw themselves pell-mell into performance. They could only afford the musicians twice a week, and went into previews after a mere 10 rehearsals. Broder recalls sitting on his bathroom floor in the middle of the night, newborn in one hand and script in the other: "It was the only free time I had, between 3 and 6 in the morning."

The sleeplessness paid off. Duffy remembers watching a dress rehearsal and looking over at a fellow company member. "I said, 'I think this might be really great.' "

For Smith, "it wasn't until we started performing that I knew how much she loved him. My divorce is in there. I understand Keely's sense of loss. What she and Louis could have had is heartbreaking." After his relationship with Smith ended, Prima married another young singer, a fan who'd carried his photo in her purse. Aldridge shakes his head. "Everyone loves Louis. But he's the ungettable get."

"Louis & Keely" is Sacred Fools' bestselling show ever; inevitably, outside interest has been expressed. "We're in an active search for the next venue," says Aldridge.

And still rewriting. "We put in new stuff every night," says Broder. "Eventually I'd like to do what Louis did -- call the song in the moment. He wouldn't give his musicians a set list. He didn't tell the crew what the lighting cues would be. Louis just said, 'Follow me.' We're trying to re-create that energy in this show. To have a different set each performance? That's the ideal. But we have to earn that."

© 2008 L.A. Times
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Hot Saharan Nights
Louis & Keely's creators relish their runaway success.

The 11-year-old Sacred Fools Theater Company offers eclectic fare, though terms like edgy and offbeat provide apt summations of the award-winning group's overall artistic vibe. Yet in summer 2008, when Rolls-Royces and Bentleys began pulling into the parking lot in the theatre's funky east Hollywood neighborhood — and fistfights between octogenarian patrons over standing-room-only tickets broke out in the lobby — it became clear something extraordinary was afoot there. That something is the explosively successful new biographical musical Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara — part nostalgic cabaret, part Oedipal tragedy, charting the ill-fated romance of 1950s Vegas lounge-singing partners Louis Prima and Keely Smith. After an extended summer run at Sacred Fools, the show opened last month for an encore engagement at West Hollywood's Matrix Theatre, where the frenzy continues. This attraction recently netted four Ovation Award nominations: for musical in an intimate theatre, director Jeremy Aldridge, and writer-performers Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith, who are more surprised than anyone at the show's euphoric reception.

In an era of blockbuster jukebox tuners, it's astounding that no one thought of dramatizing this fascinating true story before. Backed by a sassy jazz combo, Louis and Keely thrived as a headlining duo at the Sahara Lounge in Las Vegas from 1948 through 1961. Their influence on musical styles — from jazz and swing to easy listening and rock — was profound, and their fame has steadily mushroomed over the years. The charismatic Louis, whose manic performing style is legendary, brought Keely into his act when she was 16. Their subsequent passionate though turbulent marriage eventually failed, largely due to Louis' philandering and his career obsession. Louis died in 1978, and Keely still occasionally performs. The play juxtaposes galvanizing musical sequences — that re-create the duo's most popular numbers — to heart-wrenching behind-the-scenes episodes depicting a great romance gone sour. The piece starts on Louis' deathbed, then takes a stylized spin back to yesteryear, recounting the blossoming of a marvelous professional partnership followed by its step-by-step disintegration.

How did Broder and Smith's labor of love commence? "About five years ago," says Sacred Fools member Smith, who plays Keely, "I was writing a screenplay about Depression-era New Orleans and was looking at historical figures who lived in the area. That's when Louis Prima [played by Broder] was a teenager, so I started to research him. I found a documentary that told his story prior to meeting Keely. I remember being introduced to that music when I was a kid and then being reminded of it when I was in college, when I became more drawn to the Keely story than to Louis' younger life. I decided this would be a great story that I would love to tell, but I also wanted to portray Keely. But I thought I dare not write the script until I could find someone to play Louis. These were huge shoes to fill, requiring not only a mastery of language but also the sensibility of music and being able to conduct a band. And the actor needed star quality."

Smith was working as a waitress at the M Bar in Hollywood two years ago, where Broder was performing his acclaimed show Lord Buckley in Los Angeles, a bio-cabaret about the 1950s comedian. Smith says she instantly knew she had found her perfect Louis. She approached Broder about it, and though it sounded very interesting to him, he wanted to see the script, which Smith hadn't written yet. She began work on it by herself initially, as Broder finished other commitments, and they ultimately joined forces to craft their vehicle. Though both performers consider themselves actors before singers, they love music and have experience singing, and they say they felt at home portraying nightclub entertainers. Broder found certain psychological similarities among the driven creative artist Louis and other characters the actor has played, such as Lord Buckley and Mozart in Amadeus on Broadway.

The element that took this piece out of the realm of crowd-pleasing cabaret entertainment — though it succeeds fabulously on that level — is its links with classic stories of tragically mismatched couples. Says Broder, "We looked at Pygmalion, A Star Is Born, that sort of canon. This story speaks very much to actors and artists. We have so many choices to make between career and personal life and relationship. That's what drew me to the story. [Louis] chose the love of the audience, the popularity — which were the things he needed the most. What we are putting forth in this show is sort of a devil's bargain. In this day and age, for everyone it's sort of 'Fame, fame, fame, look at me.' That's paper-thin — glorious and yet horrific."

The collaborators had a simpatico working relationship from the start. They say their overriding concern was telling the story in the most truthful and compelling way possible, rather than obsessing over their egos or personal stakes in the project. Smith says, "The whole experience has sort of been that if I get chills and feel something in my gut about something, it was the right way to go. You know the universe is telling you something. That's certainly the way I felt when I found Jake. When we were in about draft three and I was downloading everything I knew about Prima, I told Jake about the incident when Louis was in the hospital in a coma. He then suddenly said, 'That's it! That's our bookend!' " The production now starts and ends with scenes of Louis in a hospital bed.

The development of the characters posed interesting challenges for the duo. How do you convincingly play real-life personalities at least some members of the audience will remember, without resorting to impersonation? "I would never want to do an impression of Keely, because you just can't beat what she did," says Smith "There are suggestions of things she would do. I worked to capture her essence — trying to figure out why she [scratches] her nose all the time, for example — not to do as an impression but convey things she did for a reason." Broder adds, "Every time you create characters, whether imaginary or historical, you're not so much imitating physical attributes as going back to what made them the way they are. If I had the same preconditions and the same sorts of needs and wants as they did, how would that manifest truthfully in me? Trying to split a fine line, you want to have enough physical fidelity so people don't walk out saying, 'That's wrong,' but at the end of the day, what carries, what people are coming to the theatre for, is to experience these people, the deep truth of them — emotionally, spiritually, musically. When there is a choice between fidelity and truth, we go for truth."

Wide-ranging audiences — from baby boomers out for a nostalgically fun Saturday night to hip theatregoers who like experiencing what's currently hot — are packing the Matrix, getting swept up into the show's great music and infectious energy, only to be socked in the solar plexus when the stark tragedy sinks in. Smith says that before the show premiered at Sacred Fools, she worried it was not going to find its audience when people she spoke to didn't know who Keely is. But she stopped worrying when she saw how much toe-tapping was going on during the first performances and as she watched the standard Sacred Fools crowds diversify into widely varying demographics. Yet, Broder remarks, "This is one of the first times in my life I, like, kicked it out there and worked as hard as I could but didn't really care what followed. It was all about the experience." Smith concurs. "I love the music. I love this story. So if I can put it out there and introduce it to people, I'm satisfied." Broder expresses gratitude for the support of Sacred Fools: "This is a testament to that company's importance in this city, as well as other companies like it. The amount of sacrifice of time and energy that people put into launching this show was incredible, and all by a completely unpaid volunteer staff. The result is the most successful show in Sacred Fools' history. On Craigslist, there were people begging for tickets."

What about the show's future? "It's looking good," says Broder. "We're tossing around a lot of ideas. There's a fundraiser coming up in December. There are some really interesting people circling the show right now. I'm hoping by the end of November we will have formalized plans to take this to points east, perhaps even far east. We will see. We want to do a workshop and then end up in New York." From Vegas to Hollywood to the Big Apple, the Louis and Keely legend is thriving. Same goes for the dreams of two prodigious writer-actors.

-- Les Spindle
© 2008 BackStage West

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Plus - check out these audience raves!


Photo by Haven Hartman

Sacred Fools' Soaring New Musical,
Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara

You can find several clips of singer-partners Louis Prima and Keely Smith, with a small jazz combo behind them, on YouTube. The pair practically invented the genre of the lounge act, playing as they did during much of the 1950s at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, lingering on the margins of fame. Think of them as antecedents to Sonny and Cher, or a musical version of Abbott and Costello. Smith was the “straight-man” woman and long-suffering wife of the hyperactive, philandering Prima, whom you’ll see hopping in front of the bandstand like a maniac, throwing his entire body into each beat, a grin plastered across his face, the biggest ham since Hamlet.

Keep these tiny-screen presences in mind when you see Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder’s sublime new musical about the duo and their tempestuous life on and off stage, Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara.  Certainly not the first musical to chronicle a musical group — other recent entries include Pump Boys and Dinettes and Jersey Boys — this has to be the first one to take a lounge act seriously, rather than as a spittoon for gobs of ridicule.

In a glorious world-premiere production directed by Jeremy Aldridge for Hollywood’s Sacred Fools Theater Company, Prima and Smith are re-created with accuracy and richness — perhaps because the writers are also the leading players. Vanessa Claire Smith’s cropped brunette ’do apes that of Keely Smith’s, a look that Liza Minnelli adopted later — though the silky, tender singing style of both Smiths couldn’t be more contrary to Minnelli’s comparatively ostentatious, belting interpretations.

Prima had a more gruff sound than that depicted by Broder, whose sculpted, jazzy tones more closely resemble Bobby Darin’s. What Broder delivers in thunderbolts, though, is Prima’s exuberant, maniacal self-choreography — leaping, lurching, swaying and sashaying. Why this guy is jumping around so much becomes the musical’s central question. The answer to that question could come with dismissing Prima as a narcissistic clown. The creators, however, treat their subject with far more compassion than that, as Prima’s plight approaches tragedy. (Broder played Mozart in the Broadway production of Amadeus, which provides a small window onto the vainglorious hysteria that Broder depicts here so brilliantly.) He croons in musical styles from ’20s Dixieland jazz through ’30s swing, ’40s big band and ’50s scat — and their accompanying lingo (“cats,” “chicks” and “gigs”). Broder’s song-and-dance routine, capturing Prima’s cocky romantic domination over Smith, as well as his solipsistic devotion to his music, is a bravura performance not to be missed.

And having an onstage, seven-piece backup band (doubling as supporting players) doubles the impact, particularly with sounds so carefully modulated by musical director Dennis Kaye. A piano, two saxophones, a string bass, drum set, a trumpet and trombone, all on the stage of this 99-seat theater, places us in the equivalent of a small recording studio. When the band hits its stride with enveloping riffs of Dixieland blues and Big Band stylings, hang on to your seat. The musical current is that strong.

This journey through Prima’s life comes on the eve of his death in 1978. (Smith is still alive and thriving.) Though it sweeps in biographical details from the ’20s — his “craziness,” he says, captured hearts during the Great Depression — the story kicks into gear during the late ’40s with its A Star is Born plot featuring Smith as the ingenue who saves Prima’s foundering big-band act and resurrects it with a ’50s spin in Las Vegas. And though he’s doing all the jumping and prancing, and giving all the orders, the newspaper reviews focus on her talents, not his. Prima’s jealousy erupts, not so much in offstage screaming matches (he barely speaks to her) but in the tensions that escalate on the stage, which everyone can see, and which perversely renders their act more popular. He actually encourages the onstage hostility, for just that reason.

And so, through 16 songs (ranging from “Basin Street Blues,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to the song that defined Prima’s career, the medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody”) one passionate love and cruel marriage is played out almost entirely between the lines. If the purpose of musical theater is to express in song what can’t be expressed in mere words, this is about as perfect as a musical can get. It’s simple without being simplistic, summing up 80 years of gender relations in 90 minutes. Yet this is not just a musical about men and women but about life, and art as an expression of it; the devastating costs of recklessly turning a private life into a public one; and that old, blinding obsession with fame.

Smith’s desperate words accompany her tortured decision to leave her husband, “Life is happening right in your face and you don’t even notice. You don’t hear anything unless it’s in the key of B flat!”

I walked out of the theater wrenched by a depth of emotion that seemed to make no sense, coming from a musical about the quaint saga of an almost forgotten lounge act. That’s when I realized I’d been punched in the gut and didn’t even know it. It was a delayed reaction to the blow landed in Broder’s reprise of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” He just kept on singing that refrain, as the band packed up and left him there, until his death bed slowly rolled in.

What may first look like a musical comedy is actually a musical tragedy, ancient Greek style: the deluded protagonist who’s undone by hubris and sent into exile.

Exile was a bad end for Oedipus, but imagine if Oedipus’ delusions included eternal celebrity from a Las Vegas lounge act.

The program cover contains the slogan, “Nothing lasts forever.”

I hope this show does.

-- Steven Leigh Morris
© 2008
L.A. Weekly
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Bandleader Louis Prima and his fourth wife, Keely Smith, revolutionized the Las Vegas lounge act, becoming a must-see act at the Sahara during the 1950s. Their onstage antics, offstage turmoil, and immense talent are ideal fodder for a stage show, which Vanessa Claire Smith was wise enough to realize. Smith created, co-wrote, and co-stars in this tight, exciting, vibrant 90-minute homage to the groundbreaking couple. Her writing collaborator, Jake Broder, is a bundle of energy and a singing powerhouse as Prima. They sing nearly 20 standards, backed by a sharp seven-piece band that plays outstanding arrangements—and there’s still time left to flesh out these enigmatic icons thanks to Jeremy Aldridge’s snappy direction.

Opening in the 1970s as a comatose Prima (Broder) lies in a hospital bed, the story is told through his eyes as he flashes back to 1948. That’s when a 16-year-old Smith (Smith) joins the band and jump-starts Prima’s career. They wind up in Las Vegas , and Prima creates an act where his silly, spastic style contrasts sharply with Smith’s unflappable attitude. Prima runs around on Smith and isn’t a good parent, but their anger toward each other translates into laughs onstage, as they inject songs such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “That Old Black Magic” with lots of humorous asides.

Perhaps 80 percent of the performance is musical—all of it wonderful. Broder doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be a Prima impersonator, instead capturing his essence, from the nonstop jumping around to the way Prima would slingshot in tempo and key. Broder’s charisma matches Prima’s, and his singing skills are superb. Equally impressive is Smith, whose stern glances and soaring vocals echo Keely’s without trying to copy each nuance; her rendition of “Pack Your Clothes” is unforgettable. The dialogue between the two is a bit stilted and Broder appears more comfortable as the onstage Prima, but those are minor quibbles.

It’s rare that a 99-Seat premiere seems destined for bigger things, but Louis & Keely could have appeal similar to the long-running Rat Pack’s, while it offers more emotional depth and more-exciting musical performances.

-- Jeff Favre
© 2008 BackStage West

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A jazzy jolt of adrenaline surges through this extraordinary bio-musical about the postwar lounge duo that consisted of the jittery dervish Louis Prima (Jake Broder) and his deadpan-wielding wife Keely Smith (Vanessa Claire Smith). The two primary actors wrote the show for themselves, but it gallops past the limitations of most showcases and star bios to become an exquisite evocation of the joys and the sorrows of a performance-obsessed life, staged by Jeremy Aldridge. The stars and Dennis Kaye’s onstage, seven-man band bring breathless revelations to 16 oft-heard standards.

-- Don Shirley
© 2008 L.A. CityBeat

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The small Sacred Fools Theater leaves the actors no room for error. Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith are more than up to the challenge.

They may not look much like Louis Prima and Keely Smith, but the two actors channeling the famous lounge duo at the Sacred Fools Theater are so good that you're bound to forget they're not the real thing, at least for 90 minutes.

That's how long it takes for Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith -- remember those names; they ought to be famous if there's justice in this world -- to work their way through the showbiz couple's courtship, marriage and breakup.

"Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara" is a simple biographical story told with infectious retro pizzazz. It's also one of the best musicals playing in town.

Told in a hallucinated flashback as Prima lies comatose in a hospital bed, the show picks up in the late 1940s when the King of the Swingers first encounters the ingénue Keely at an audition. She lands a part as a singer in the band just as Prima is about to move to Las Vegas to set up shop at the Sahara.

What separates "Louis & Keely" from jukebox musicals like "Jersey Boys" and "Mamma Mia!" is its scaled-down simplicity. The intimate size of the Sacred Fools space forces the actors to focus their voices and performances with ruthless precision. You can't fake it when you're singing that close to the audience. Together, the leads perform 17 numbers and nail each one.

Playing Prima with boundless energy, Broder captures his character's obnoxious off-stage personality while suggesting that his faults were integral to his on-stage appeal. Broder's athletic mimicry is a real hoot to watch and he looks as if he loses 10 pounds just bouncing around the stage. Equally good, Smith brings a stand-offish hostility to her character that defrosts exquisitely when she performs songs such as "That Old Black Magic" or "I've Got You Under My Skin."

"Louis & Keely" tracks the usual showbiz ups and downs rather mechanically (the lead actors also wrote the script). But it's easy to forgive the clichés when there's so much musical mayhem to distract you. The live, seven-member band plays with gregarious showmanship. And director Jeremy Aldridge synthesizes it all into one shiny package. This is musical theater at its most rousing and entertaining. Go twice.

-- David Ng
© 2008
L.A. Times
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[Also see Phil Gallo's Variety blog entry on Louis Prima and Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara]

A swinging romp that parallels a Greek tragedy, Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder have neatly placed a biography within a Vegas lounge act to create a bio-tuner that is often riveting and deserving of further development. "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara" emphasizes story and performance far above impersonation, which gives the piece a bit of "Jersey Boys"-like appeal: Regardless of the auds' familiarity with the music or the personas, the substance here is a story of love, fame, jealousy and broken hearts.

What distinguishes "Louis & Keely" is its exploration of the pitfalls of maintaining no separation between showroom and the home, how Louis Prima stayed keenly focused on satisfying an audience even as it destroyed his family. The love of a wife can't compare to the affection he cherished from his mother and the sound of applause, which ultimately pushed away Keely Smith, a situation incomprehensible to the star. It's both the most sharply written and performed section of the show.

Prima, whose legacy has been revived by the Gap, Brian Setzer and David Lee Roth, was keenly aware that he needed to continually alter his act to keep seats filled. His younger days in New Orleans were spent as a traditional jazz trumpeter; he was an originator of swing in the 1930s in New York; he recorded Italian novelty tunes in the 1940s with his big band and became one of America's most popular entertainers; and, in the 1950s, he downsized to a combo and created a lively, raucous integration of all the styles he had covered in his first 20 years in music. (Fearful that television would rob him of an audience, he became a popular guest on variety shows, often re-creating his nightclub act with Smith).

"Louis & Keely" covers all of this biography between, and sometimes in the middle of, his signature songs: "Basin Street Blues," "Angelina," "Sheik of Araby" and "That Old Black Magic." Prima, when the show opens, has been in a coma for two years. It is 1978, the year of his death, and with the snap of his fingers, the calendar rolls back 30 years to an artistic crossroads for the gravelly voiced Italian singer, who at the time of his death was best known for his contributions to the Disney pic "The Jungle Book."

Broder, as Prima, uses the snapping of his fingers to shift between biographical and musical memories; Heatherlynn Gonzalez's lighting pinpoints the action with clarity and makes the stage, set up as a bandstand, feel like a multitude of locations.

Broder sets up the Prima milieu quickly: Mom runs the business from back home; he's a womanizer involved in yet another divorce; he senses his act is aging and needs a spark, the easiest solution being to add yet another girl as a backup singer.

Enter Dorothy Keely (Vanessa Claire Smith), a 16-year-old thrush who impresses Prima immediately. Prima hires her, instantly changes her name to Keely Smith and takes on a Svengali role: She is to not do anything without his explicit instruction.

That ultimately informs their life on and off the stage, and a good hour of "Louis & Keely" explores the ramifications of one individual establishing and enforcing ground rules for another. Smith becomes his bride at 18 -- he was in his early 40s -- and, by her mid-20s, a potential star trapped by the Prima style, which critics have begun to harp on.

Packing all of the information into less than 90 minutes means sacrificing a bit of biographical clarity, the strenuousness of the Vegas work (performing from 11 p.m. until daybreak) and the initial emotional connection between Prima and Smith.

And while it is abundantly clear that Prima wanted Smith to play deadpan and act like the two were fighting -- they were a musical version of Ralph and Alice Kramden and the model for Sonny & Cher -- we never see the humor in full bloom. Were the tuner extended in length, the story could have more dynamics; currently the only modulation comes in moments of anger.

Ostensibly a two-hander with an onstage band that emphatically jumps, jives and wails, Broder captures the manic wildness of Prima's stage antics, a choreography based on the moves of boxers and monkeys in trees. Smith, as Keely Smith, makes an impressive transformation from awestruck teenager to angry and confused mother a decade or so later. Her role, as well as that of saxophonist Sam Butera (Colin Kupka, a better musician than actor), could be easily expanded.

Her "Embraceable You" with Prima's interjections is the evening's spot-on perf though neither Broder nor Smith has the vocal personalities of Louis & Keely. Prima was a nimble singer who squeezed his bellowing voice into a register higher than his natural tenor-baritone. Broder has a good voice but a smaller range and far less gravel. He gets high marks for his command of the often-wordy Prima delivery style.

Keely Smith is a tougher nut vocally, a unique blend of jazz and pop that caressed the listener. There's an appropriate onstage coldness that Vanessa Claire Smith plays well that extends to her vocals with less success; the contrast between Smith's aloofness and the warmth of her singing has not been wholly captured here. The Prima-Smith vocal mix was one of divergent parts that made little sense in theory. The distinction between the two vocalists could be driven home with a bit more force.

Jeremy Aldridge's direction is as compact and tight as the script, making good use of the entire performance space to isolate private moments on the sides and place the public lives front and center.

-- Phil Gallo
© 2008
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Neither Jake Broder nor Vanessa Claire Smith come close to recreating the vocal gravel of Louis Prima or the sultry smoke of Keely Smith, but they adroitly portray the prickly essence of one of the entertainment world's original mismatches; a duo that essentially created the Vegas lounge act and the dynamic that Sonny & Cher later, um, "borrowed." The show, which the pair wrote as well, both entertains and engages. Broder's energy is boundless and his style undeniable as he captures Prima's manic insecurity, and while Smith the actress comes off as a bit too pert at times as Smith, the famously imperturbable singer, she looks like a million (OK, not so much the wig). Under the direction of Jeremy Aldridge, the two do a fine job in creating the chemistry that drives the production. The band is superb, and the sound that musical director Dennis Kaye draws from them is spot on. Oh, and do check out the promotional matchbooks.

-- Wenzel Jones
© 2008 Frontiers Magazine

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EDGE Los Angeles

Louis Prima was New Orleans’ other famous Louis. Like the great "Satchmo" Armstrong, Louis Prima was born in the Crescent City at the beginning of the last century. He worked throughout the jazz decades as both a singer and bandleader, but by the early 1950s the gigs had dried up. With a pregnant fourth wife (singing partner Keely Smith) and in serious need of a regular paycheck, Prima called up Bill Nelson who booked for the Sahara in Las Vegas. Though his friend, fellow bandleader Cab Calloway warned him they would hate working the cramped Sahara lounge, Prima and Smith agreed to a contract of five shows a night starting at 11 p.m. They’d finish up each morning around 6 a.m. just as the Strip’s famed all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets got hopping.

Nowadays, this kind of show has been eclipsed by Montreal circuses and overproduced celebrity mega-acts, but in its heyday the Vegas lounge act pioneered by Louis Prima and Keely Smith was an iconic fixture on the Strip, reaching its zenith in the famed late-night impromptu performances of Sinatra’s "Rat Pack" in the lounge of the old Sands Hotel.

In Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara, now onstage at the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles, performer/authors Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith pay homage to the original act and its stars. They knock the roof right off the joint. The little theater is a perfect venue -- about the size of a typical Vegas lounge in the 1950s (alas, without the beverage service). Ms. Smith and Mr. Broder deftly recreate the original act, a lively blend of husband/wife insult comedy and bop renditions of standards like "Angelina, "That Old Black Magic" and "Sheik of Araby."

Mr. Broder and Ms. Smith portray the pair with great respect and fidelity. They absolutely nail the famed stage personas of Louis and Keely - her deadpan putdowns and his zany goofiness. (Sonny and Cher lifted their act wholesale from these two)... both performers are top notch. Jake Broder captures the frenetic onstage energy of Louis Prima along with his jaw dropping vocal virtuosity. His is not a big voice, but it is agile and exciting, especially when imitating Prima’s dizzying jazz scatting. His rendition of Prima’s signature "Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody" (with which David Lee Roth made a small fortune via a video cover in 1985) is alone worth the price of a ticket. Vanessa Claire Smith portrays Keely Smith’s onstage charm beautifully. Her renditions of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Embraceable You" are gorgeous.

The band is terrific. They’re all solid musicians and have rehearsed to within an inch of their lives. As bandleader Sam Butera, tenor saxophonist Colin Kupka is a standout. Call the butcher -- this guy has chops. His command of the instrument’s jazz idiom is masterful. No less dexterous, Jeff Markgraf plays a mean slap bass and pianist Richard Levinson seems to be one of those guys with extra fingers on each hand. Others in this talented ensemble, who also provide background vocals and portray minor characters, include musical director and saxophonist Dennis Kaye, drummer Michael L. Solomon, trombonist Brian Wallis and trumpeter "Hollywood" Paul Litteral.

-- Trevor Thomas
© 2008 Edge Los Angeles

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