March 4, 2021

Louis and Keely, Live At the Sahara (really at the Royal George)

I am giving a qualified recommendation to Louis and Keely, Live At the Sahara currently on the Royal George main stage due to the fantastic work of Anthony Crivello as Louis Prima and Vanessa Claire Stewart who marvelously plays Keely Smith and also co-wrote the book. Paul Perroni as Frank Sinatra and various other characters exudes charm as does Erin Matthews artfully playing any number of broads and dames.

The crack on-stage music ensemble, playing Louis Prima’s back-up band, The Witnesses has some of the cream of Chicago’s musical crop: Jeremy Kahn on piano, Bill Overton on Baritone Sax, Guitar and Clarinet, Dan Johnson on Trombone, Michael Solomon on Percussion and Jon Paul on Bass. Colin Kupka impressively plays jazz tenor sax great Sam Butera who was a featured artist in Prima’s band. The musicians even sing or shout melody lines as back-up to Prima’s and Keely’s numbers. Whenever the singing actors sing and the band plays, the show crackles.

The set, by producer/singer/actor/writer Hershey Felder really evokes the glamour of Vegas in the 1950s. The choreography is charming. The stage production values couldn’t be better in a house of this size. Famed film director Taylor Hackford is at the helm of this musical show and for the most part does an admirable job. There is a split scene, however, with Keely singing and Louis going through newspaper gossip column clippings his mother has sent him. Surely there could be a clearer and less cluttered way of showing that Keely’s mother-in-law was not a fan of hers.

Prima on a gurney at the top of the show is a daring and possibly dangerous way to start the show. I would have liked to have heard the fantastic music going on in his head from the moment the audience sees him followed by the scene with doctor and nurse.

As for the final bookend visit to the hospital, could we have something hopeful at the end of the show? Did Keely Smith go on without him? Could there be an acknowledgement that the years they spent together off and on the stage were a magical time? He flippantly says that he should have gone back home with her, but that is not satisfying as an ending.

Louis and Keely’s storyline is very similar to “A Star Is Born” in both the 1937 and 1954 film versions. Both movies buoy the audience back up with inspirational scenes played by their respective heroines. Some similar device might have left this musical on a higher emotional peak. At the risk of re-writing the show, could we see Prima finally realize that the best time of his life was with Keely and that is what he replays while unconscious? Perhaps that is what the writers intended but this needs to be strengthened.

I left the Royal George Theater humming and snapping my fingers but with a vague melancholy at the downbeat ending. By all means go see this show if you were a fan of Louis Prima and Keely Smith and want to hear fantastic renditions of their hits, but know you won’t be joyously dancing into the lobby after you’ve seen the sad denouement of their personal and musical collaboration.

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