The Playgoer: Louis & Keely

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Louis & Keely

By Steven Leigh Morris

One of L.A.'s most enduring musical hits is going on the road, on a national tour, with the aim of sliding into Broadway at some point. (As you can tell, details are sketchy at this point.)

About this time last year, I posted here on Playgoer about the musical, with an on-stage jazz band, based on the life '50s-''60s entertainers Louis Prima and Keely Smith, writer-performer Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder's Louis & Keely, Live at the Sahara. I adored and trumpeted the show when it opened in June, 2008, directed by Jeremy Aldridge, at the intimate Sacred Fools Theatre in east Hollywood -- as did my colleagues. The show soon transferred to a small venue on the Melrose strip, The Matrix Theatre. Film director Taylor Hackford, best known for his bio-epic on Ray Charles, Ray, took an early, keen interest in the project, and in late February of this year, word had leaked out that a re-written, re-conceived version of the show was transferring west or to L.A.'s own, imagined “uptown”, to the Geffen Playhouse's second stage. It opened to the press there in March and its fifth extension through September was recently announced.

Reviews of the transferred show have been strong, but I was deflated by Hackford's tinkering, and said so. The original had been a pristine memory play, seen through Prima's coma-induced ravings. The music was sublime, and each of songs had offered a reflection on partners Louis and Keely's crumbling marriage. I appreciated how it could be upbeat and harrowing in the same breath, and even included a kind of Beckettian close. It had also been theatrically taut, focusing on the duo with some of the band filling in with supplementary roles.

Under Hackford's influence, however, new characters and new actors were added – Frank Sinatra, parents, and others. In case we didn't know what New Orleans looked like, Hackford provided slides to show us. The rarefied theatricality of the former yielded to a cinematic melange. Some of the more ruminative ballads were swapped out for more of upbeat scat songs.

It was an awkward thing to say in print, given how Broder and Smith had agreed to host the L.A. Weekly Theatre Awards, one month later, which I produce. But the duo were, and remain, consummate pros.

During those awards, Smith told me that the show is a work-in-process, and that the co-writer-performers felt the need to try out new ideas. Last week, she reiterated the same theme. Hackford will not be involved with the tour and a new director has yet to be announced. Smith did mention that the duo have chosen to reinstate aspects of the original script.

Given the tenacity of their commitment to this project, and the sheer delight of the music, I'd find it hard to believe that this show won't arrive in New York within the next two years.

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