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by Haven Hartman
Louis & Keely,
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
Broder laughs. "I thought the whole thing was finished -- she even had a
flier. Then she told me she hadn't written it yet."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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Louis & Keely's creators relish their runaway
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
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.
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L.A. WEEKLY (PICK
OF THE WEEK and BEST BET)
by Haven Hartman
Sacred Fools' Soaring New
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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
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 was a
bad end for Oedipus, but imagine if Oedipus’ delusions included eternal
celebrity from a Las Vegas lounge act.
cover contains the slogan, “Nothing lasts forever.”
I hope this
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BACKSTAGE WEST (CRITIC'S
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
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
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L.A. CITYBEAT (THEATER
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.
[ Buy Tickets
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
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
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
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
[ Buy Tickets
[Also see Phil Gallo's Variety blog entry on
Louis Prima and
Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara]
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
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
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.
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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.
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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
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
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.
Edge Los Angeles
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