Like the breed of itinerant entertainers it celebrates, “Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara” has been boppin’ around various venues for more than a decade, trying out new things and developing its delivery. Under producer Hershey Felder’s aegis, it lands in a brief Geffen Playhouse gig as an immensely enjoyable valentine to a bygone era, rightly restoring two seminal postwar figures — exuberant singer-bandleader Louis Prima (Anthony Crivello) and sultry chanteuse Keely Smith (Vanessa Claire Stewart) — from footnote to footlights.
If Prima’s remembered at all today, it’s for voicing “I Wanna Be Like You” in Disney’s animated “Jungle Book,” or for the mash-up of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” later famously covered by David Lee Roth. But in Prima’s heyday before and after WWII, he was a big name in big bands, with his own the Witnesses (including sax man Sam Butera, ably fronted here by Colin Kupka) and a desire to entertain bordering on the desperate. He’d scat and riff and slide up and down octaves, lyrics meaningless except as an excuse to excite or amuse.
Director Taylor Hackford, whose movie “Ray” proved he knows something about telling a musical life story, places Louis’ hellzapoppin’ in its natural habitat, a Vegas lounge smashingly designed by Felder and Trevor Hay, with nine overhead discs arranged to present Christopher Ash’s stills and video images of ’50s showbiz life. Quickly sketching in Prima’s Cajun-Italian roots, the script credited to Stewart, Hackford and Jake Broder, who played Louis in the show’s original incarnation, goes on to detail the highs (mostly professional) and lows (mostly personal) of two remarkable talents.
Tall and angular where Prima was puffy, Crivello is more like the high-rolling womanizer’s romantic vision of himself. But the Tony winner (for “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) perfectly channels the raspy sound and watch-me-at-all-costs manner. Strutting and preening with one hand waving a hankie, the other daintily resting on a hip, Crivello shows us why audiences couldn’t take their eyes off Louis, and why he’d likely have worn out his welcome without a complementary partner like Catholic schoolgirl Dorothy Keely, renamed Keely Smith and then Mrs. Prima.
Stewart beautifully personifies the cool authority that grounded Louis’s mania, the yin to his yang. Wide eyes framed by a Louise Brooks pageboy (and much as Cher would later handle Sonny), Smith stares at Prima’s antics like a disgusted middle-school teacher, flattens him with a riposte and then hugs her wayward boy as if to say, “I know you can’t help yourself, ya big lug.” Then she puts out a glorious ballad like “Autumn Leaves,” and Stewart renders plausible and moving the solo act that engendered both fellow jazz artists’ esteem, and her husband’s simmering professional jealousy.
When it sticks to the Sahara’s stages, which it largely does, “Louis & Keely” is as crisp as a brand new Benjamin slapped down on a blackjack table. But it kind of craps out whenever it goes conventional, clumsily trotting out furniture downstage left and right for corny, overfamiliar “Star Is Born”-type confrontations. (Her star rises as his falls; too much boozing — you’ve seen that movie a jillion times.)
It’s as if the show’s wickedly cool, impressionistic style had to be violated for the sake of inserting exposition. One wonders why all the offstage mishegoss couldn’t just be folded into the act. A Prima child already reads their billing as “Louis and Keely live (as in “reside”) at the Sahara,” so why not take that notion all the way?
Even without the structural unity that might come of jettisoning the extraneous scenery and playing out the domestic story onstage, the show leaves a strong impression of the couple’s musical styles and real-life heartbreak. You walk out with a big grin, having enjoyed over a dozen old standards. In the last analysis, a respectful, satisfying biography doesn’t require much more.