The award-winning tuner “Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara,” created by thesps Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, has risen from its humble roots when it premiered last June at the tiny Sacred Fools in Hollywood, transferring to the larger Matrix Theater in October for a sold-out 15-week run. Now helmed by Oscar-nominated film director Taylor Hackford (“Ray”), the star-crossed love/musical affair between swing era bandleader Louis Prima (Broder) and teenage thrush-turned-superstar Keely Smith (Smith) has been expanded for its outing at the Geffen Playhouse, with mixed results.
Added plot points and additional characters amplify the history of this duo, but do little to bolster the true strength of this show: Broder’s and Smith’s soaring reenactment of Louis Prima and Keely Smith performing live at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas with tenor sax master Sam Butera (Colin Kupka) and Louis’ band, the Witnesses.
Broder and Smith have elevated their portrayals, offering a near transcendent musical and comedic re-creation of the legendary Louis & Keely lounge act that ruled the Vegas musical scene during the 1950s. They make viable Louis’ onstage proposal of marriage, Keely’s mid-song pregnancy announcement and their tempestuous battles over Louis’ philandering, all the while joyously ripping through such well-known Louis & Keely fare as “Embraceable You,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Them There Eyes,” “That Old Black Magic,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Just a Gigolo” and more.
In solo turns, Broder effortlessly channels Prima’s over-the-top vocals and physical mannerisms (“Angelina,” “Zuma Baca La,” “Basin Street Blues”) while Smith continues to grow into Keely’s dramatic musical persona (“Autumn Leaves,” “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”).
Although this production contains some added Louis & Keely gems (“I Wish You Love,” “Hey Boy, Hey Girl,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me”), too often the musical output is interrupted to underscore the inclusion of this more complicated dramatic throughline.
The addition of Frank Sinatra (an understated Nick Cagle) as a character may serve this tuner as a catalyst for the breakup of Louis and Keely’s marriage, but Sinatra’s scenes suck the energy out of the production as if they belong in a different show altogether. It is also jarring to listen to Cagle’s underwhelming Sinatra vocal turn in contrast to the veracity of Broder and Smith.
A hard-working Erin Matthews is a show unto herself as she rapidly morphs into myriad females that affect the relationship of Louis and Keely. One hilarious transition has Matthews slowly discarding her clothes as she segues from Keely’s severely attired, hyper-religious mother to a scantily clad New Orleans stripper, all to Kupka’s wailing tenor sax rendering of Jimmy Forrest’s jazz classic “Night Train.”
Special kudos must go to the ultra-swinging onstage band, including Richard Levinson (piano), Nate Light (bass), Paul Litteral (trumpet) Dan Sawyer (reeds), Michael L. Solomon (drums) and Brian Wallis (trombone).
First-time legit helmer Hackford is striving to attain the same balance of music and biography that proved so successful in Broadway’s “Jersey Boys” and his own feature, “Ray.” As played out on the limited stage area of the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, “Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara” is still a work in progress.