On stage at the Royal George Theatre recently, the guys in the band were warming up, stepping to the beat as they played a brassy riff from “Louis and Keely, Live at the Sahara,” the new 100-minute “play with music” co-written by film director Taylor Hackford, actress Vanessa Claire Stewart and actor Jake Broder, and co-produced by Hackford and Hershey Felder, the man Chicago has come to regard as the Pied Piper of musical storytelling.
Moving to the music with a sexy swagger was actor Anthony Crivello who stars as Louis Prima, the musical chameleon who adapted to the sounds and rhythms of a half century of American pop music, and who, in 1949, discovered a gifted singer, just 17, named Keely Smith (who is being played here by Stewart). By 1953 the pair (with an 18-year difference in their ages) had married, and had already become stars in an act that was an unexpectedly huge hit at the Sahara Hotel’s Casino in Las Vegas, and one of the most influential music acts of the 1950s.
‘LOUIS AND KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA’
When: In previews; opens April 7 for an open run
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 988-9000;
A singer, actor, trumpeter, songwriter and all-round charismatic entertainer, Prima was born into a Sicilian immigrant family in New Orleans in 1910. By the 1920s he had begun his career in that city with his seven-piece jazz band. He would go on to crisscross the country, leading a swing combo in New York in the 1930s, and a popular big band in the 1940s, before triumphing in the early 1950s (at the very moment his star seemed to be fading) with his Vegas lounge act with Keely Smith.
Smith, who grew up in Norfolk, Va., was just 14 when she started singing with a naval air station band. At 15, she got her first paying job with the Earl Bennett band. Shy, and close to paralyzed by stage fright, she met Prima, a veteran womanizer, in a tiny Virginia Beach dive.
Hackford, whose music-laced films include “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “White Nights,” and “Ray,” said he grew up listening to one of his mom’s favorite albums — a recording of Smith’s solo act. It was only when he saw Prima and Smith’s act on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” that he realized, “Keely has another half.” It wouldn’t be until 2005, after the release of “Ray,” that he would actually meet the singer, now 87, who has since become “a great friend.”
“Keely was amused that I knew her recording of ‘I Wish You Love’ [her first big solo hit],” recalled Hackford, who is married to actress Helen Mirren. “But this is a woman who both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan admired. And I fell in love with her because she was just so candid and so free of any stilted Hollywood attitudes. She told me about how her uncle got her the audition with Prima, and how Prima then got her mother’s permission for her to go out on the road with his band. Keely had a great voice from the start, but her stage fright was a problem. Her relationship with Prima really had a ‘Pygmalion’-like quality to it. Early on he would dance around her on stage – his big personality countering her ‘cigar store Indian’ stance. But she was a beauty, with jet black hair and part Cherokee features, and once she began to open up and they developed that onstage chemistry, the fun began.” (The couple, who had two children, divorced in 1961.)
“Prima, like Louis Armstrong, who was his model, was the consummate entertainer,” Hackford said. “He played the greatest music of his time. A tall, sexy man, he just emanated enjoyment.”
“For all his success (among other things, he wrote and recorded ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ in 1936, which later became a huge hit for Benny Goodman), as the Big Band era waned, so did Prima’s career,” Hackford explained. “Then the Sahara Hotel booked the pair for a two-week, late-night gig, hoping that if there were some entertainment on the casino floor it might encourage a larger crowd to stay during the hours only the hardcore gamblers were usually left.”
“A riser was put up right in the center of the working casino floor, and suddenly their act became the hippest entertainment around. They did seven shows a night, from 11:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m., and somehow they made that life work — arriving home in time to send their two daughters off to school, then heading to bed until the kids came home and had dinner before heading off again to work. Ten years later, Sonny & Cher basically copied their act.”
“Louis and Keely,” which arrives in Chicago in enhanced form after enjoying a seven-month sold-out engagement at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, features 22 songs from the Louis and Keely songbook of standards, including “That Ol’ Black Magic,” “Hey Boy, Hey Girl,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Night Train,” Ai, Ai, Ai,” “I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me,” and many others.
Tony Award-winning actor Crivello (who, like Prima, is of Sicilian parentage), is a Broadway veteran who received a Tony Award for his performance in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Award-winning writer-actress Stewart created the role of Keely in Los Angeles. They will be backed by a seven-piece onstage jazz band comprised largely of Chicago musicians. The show also features Paul Perroni, who plays multiple roles including Frank Sinatra (Smith had an affair with him after her marriage to Prima broke up, and it was Sinatra who encouraged her to develop a solo career and even produced her first album), and Erin Matthews, who, as Hackford put it, plays “a variety of mothers and whores.”
Hershey Felder, a Chicago favorite for his own performances as George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven and Chopin, and for his direction of Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” first saw an early rendering of “Louis and Keely” at the Geffen at the invitation of its late artistic director, Gil Cates, and Hackford, who he had met at Cates’ 75th birthday party.
“Taylor [Hackford] knew of my work in Chicago, and was interested in presenting the piece here,” said Felder. “With Taylor’s busy schedule, and mine, it took a few years, but here we are. I’d known the name Louis Prima. He was an artist my parents and grandparents loved, and we had his recordings in our basement, by the record player. I’d put one on from time to time, and realized this was a different kind of ‘cool’ from the 1980’s rock and roll I was listening to; it was ‘real cool.’ Of course more recently I went to YouTube to hunt for everything Prima. He was a real musician, and an entertainer who knew he had a responsibility to deliver. And what a character – no – a CHARACTER!”
“Keely always says that Chicago [notably the Gay Paree nightclub at 610 N. Fairbanks Ct.] was the place where her act with Louis really had the greatest success,” said Hackford. “We hope to repeat that. ”
As for a possible movie version of the show, Hackford said only: “That would be way down the road.”