Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
As one of the most important performers of the last century, Frank Sinatra left many stories in his wake. He plays a subtle role in the wonderful musical about the life of Luis Prima and Keely Smith.
What started as an experiment has grown with the guiding hand of Taylor Hackford into an energetic production bubbling with life. Hackford’s no slouch when it comes to dealing with biographies of musicians (Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens). But without the sterling cast led by Vanessa Claire Smith & Jake Broder, Hackford’s production would be as flat as week old champagne.
Using the time-honored construct of the lead character on his deathbed, the musical opens with Prima looking back on his stage career.
Broder/Prima quickly bounces from his deathbed and into a chronological survey of his rise and drift into semi-obscurity. Smith/Keely becomes Prima’s onstage foil via the classic audition. She comes in all shy, sweet and virginal. Inevitably, the pair’s onstage flirtation becomes more than an act. Prima leaves his domineering wife for Keely, and the pair raise a family and try to settle into Vegas nightclub domesticity.
Ol’ Blue Eyes soon enters the scene, adding to the couple’s challenges. Nick Cagle provides a sufficiently debonair Sinatra.
As with most of Hackford’s other music-based productions, Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara benefits from a bounty of memorable songs. Among the many songs assayed, highlights include “That Old Black Magic”, “Just a Gigolo”, “I’m in the Mood For Love”, “Hey Boy, Hey Girl” and “Embraceable You” The live combo onstage is crisp, and provides the perfect support for the sterling performances of Smith and Broder (both of whom share the play’s co-writer credit). Broder channels Prima’s twitchy, jumpy, loose-limbed eye-rolling demeanor. The doe-eyed Smith is the calming influence for Prima both onstage and off. The compact stage (designed by Joel Daavid) is versatile and the period attire (by Melissa Bruning) is evocative.
The production has deserved all its accolades (including an incredible 14 Los Angeles theatre awards). It has been extended numerous times, but like all good things, the run will end. Don’t miss it. Buttressed by a cast with talent to spare, Hackford’s take on Louis and Keely is a delight.