Stage Page: ‘Louis & Keely’ celebrates glory days of an early Las Vegas duo

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I remember stories my parents shared after their yearly New Year’s Eve celebrations in Las Vegas about the places they visited and shows they saw. Since they always stayed at the Sahara Hotel, they were entertained in the Conga Room by Louis Prima and Keely Smith. So it was a real treat to be able to enjoy “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara” at the Geffen Playhouse with my Mom, taking her back in time for an evening.

Louis Prima and Keely Smith shared a larger-than-life marriage and a groundbreaking Las Vegas act featuring unforgettable songs like “That Ol’ Black Magic,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Embraceable You.” These songs and many others are featured in the production that has grown from a local Los Angeles-created hit at Sacred Fools Theater Company to a national musical phenomenon. After earlier award-winning and extended productions in Los Angeles and more recent acclaim in Chicago, these outsized personalities and talents have returned to the city in which the show was born through Jan. 17.

The current production is directed by Taylor Hackford, who also wrote the show with Vanessa Clair Stewart and Jake Broder, and is presented by Hershey Felder (a musical talent in his own right).

Vanessa Clair Stewart co-wrote and starred in the original “Sacred Fools” production, and her dedication to presenting Keely Smith from her days as an innocent girl of 17 with a big voice looking for her first big break through her initiation into show business and marriage to Louis Prima is a joy to behold. It’s very apparent that she was the real talent in their act, although Louis was the one who really coveted the spotlight.

As played by Broadway star Anthony Crivello, the macho Italian Louis Prima called all women “Duchess” so he would not have to remember any names. That should have been a warning to Keely, but she chose to believe he only had eyes for her and improving their act. But he knew from the start she was going to be a bigger star than he was, and that pulled them apart.

Erin Matthews portrays the many “duchesses” running in and out of Louis’ life throughout the show. Her many quick costume changes were a marvel to behold, as were the various looks created for Stewart by costumers Melissa Bruning and Christianna Rogers. My Mom even whispered “I had that dress” at one point in the show. That gives you an idea of how accurate all details were in the production.

When Keely Smith realized her marriage was over, she turned to friend and confident Frank Sinatra for comfort. As played by Paul Perroni, Sinatra is at the top of his “Rat Pack” days and freely admits he admired Louis Prima for his singing style long before his own career began.

But it’s easy to see how Sinatra’s decision to offer Keely a chance to record an studio album in another city was the inciting incident that broke apart the already failing marriage. Perroni does not play Sinatra as the playboy he really was, but as a concerned and caring friend who let Keely make the first move so as not to cross any boundaries with his friend Louis.

All four actors are excellent singers, with Crivello being the most physically accomplished, stealing the show with his many highly athletic gyrations. Actors enter and exit through the audience on several occasions, perfectly lit by Christopher Ash who also designed the many projections broadcast on circular screens covering multi-level locations on the set.

Jeremy Kahn conducts the amazing onstage band under the musical direction of Paul Litteral who plays a rockin’ trumpet throughout the show. It’s definitely a night out celebrating the glory days of an incredible music era.

Louis & Keely performances continue through Jan. 17 in the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. The production travels to the Laguna Playhouse for a limited engagement beginning Feb. 24. Tickets range from $43 to $76 and can be purchased in-person, online at www.geffenplayhouse.com or by phone at 310-208-5454.