When it was first announced that “Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara” — a music and dance-infused play directed by filmmaker Taylor Hackford — was to arrive at the Royal George Theatre, I headed to YouTube to watch vintage performances by Louis Prima and Keely Smith — the galvanic performers who took Las Vegas by storm in the 1950s, and simultaneously made their way through a stormy May-December marriage.
But about 10 minutes into watching the show at Tuesday night’s opening, that video footage completely faded from memory. It was replaced by the uncanny portrayals of Anthony Crivello and Vanessa Claire Stewart — two actors who have crawled so far inside their roles that the temptation is to proclaim: What happened in Vegas not only didn’t stay there, but has come roaring back to life, decades later, in Chicago. And while the theater will never be able to offer its stars the sort of million dollar contract Prima and Smith ultimately earned at the Sahara, this show certainly should keep the box office booming. Crivello and Stewart are that good.
‘Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara’ Highly recommended When: May 17 Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted Tickets: $65 Info: (312) 988-9000; http://www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission
The show, deftly written by Stewart (who originated the role of Keely Smith in its Los Angeles production), Jake Broder and Hackford, begins as Prima is wheeled out on a hospital gurney. He is near death, yet ever the gigolo. And though his heartbeat might be faulty, the musical beat that has propelled him from his New Orleans jazz roots in the 1920s, to the swing sound of the 1930s, and to the big band sound of the 1940s, cannot be suppressed.
Of course the time in his life that will not let him go in peace is the 1950s when, seemingly no longer in fashion, he met a beguilingly naive 17-year-old with a sensational voice and proceeded to transform her into his co-star in a legendary Vegas act, as well as his wife, and the sophisticated song stylist who ultimately eclipsed him — a power shift he could not abide. When it all became too much, Smith didn’t just toss a pair of slippers at her Professor Higgins, but tried to make things work and then finally walked away, with a guy by the name of Frank Sinatra waiting in the wings.
As the story of the couple unspools in Prima’s memory, so does the music, with a six-piece onstage band capturing the interactive style of the time. Crivello, a wiry fellow with a fabulously craggy and expressive face, takes total possession of Prima, capturing the man’s manic, almost clownish energy, his loose-legged dance moves, his playful singing, and his palpable compulsion to win over an audience. You can’t take your eyes off him (he is almost never off stage), and you really have to wonder how the actor will make it through an eight-show week.
Stewart, a petite stunner with a voice that beautifully captures the distinctive richness and power of Smith’s, is terrific in the way she grows up in plain sight — from a shy teenager in a cardigan and saddle shoes, to a twentysomething who asserts her independence, to a woman who commits herself to marriage, motherhood and show biz, but finally cannot deal with Prima’s professional jealousy.
The many standards that Louis and Keely made their own drive the show — “Hey Boy Hey Girl,” “I Got It Bad,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Embraceable You,” and the list goes on. Keely learns the true meaning of “Autumn Leaves.” Louis never lets go of “I’m Just a Gigolo,” although it is “I Ain’t Got Nobody” (with Crivello in an almost Mama Rose-like meltdown) that defines him in the end.
Playing all the supporting roles in this seamlessly staged production (deftly choreographed by Vernel Bagneris) are Erin Matthews, who is equally impressive as Louis’ mother, a stripper, a Cuban dancer and a nurse, and Paul Perroni, who deals gracefully with the unenviable task of trying to be Frank Sinatra. Paul Litteral’s musical direction (with consultant Richard Levinson) is superb, as are musicians Colin Kupka, Bill Overton, Dan Johnson, Jeremy Kahn, Jon Paul and Michael Solomon.
The hand of producer Hershey Felder is ever-present. He designed the fluid sets (and there is ideal lighting by Richard Norwood, video by Masha Tatarintseva, costumes and wigs by Tristan Tom and sound by Erik Carstensen). And together with Hackford and the stellar cast, his brand of musical storytelling continues to be in a category all its own.