Monday, April 27, 2009

Theatre Review: "Louise & Keely Live at the Sahara" @ The Geffen Playhouse

Editor's Note: "The Beat" blogger Marc Cabrera recently completed the 2009 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theatre and Musical Theatre, hosted by the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. During the fellowship, Cabrera reviewed several plays as writing assignments. The following is his review of "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara" performed at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

The pulse of "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara" dips and bops with an irresistibly non-stop rhythm, even though it begins and ends on life support.

"Louis & Keely..." now playing in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the geffen Playhouse in Westood, is both a raucous musical and rock-star biopic brought to the stage. Directed by Taylor Hackford ("Ray," "An Officer and a Gentleman") the long-time film director dives into his first stage show with a sharp, skilled vision.

With compelling subjects and the joyously gifted pairing of co-writers Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith as Louis & Keely, the play shifts gears without ever missing a beat.

That because Smith and Broder are smart enough to know when to pause for a moment's reflection, then snap back into the music, which is always guided by Louis DePrima. The Sicilian jazz man who, among other distinctions wrote the Benny Goodman hit "Sing, Sing,Sing" is introduced in a present time period, on a hospital bed, unconscious. This, it seemed, was the only time he would sit still, as the midnight hour approaches and suddenly, our leader jolts back to life ready for a good time.

As Louis, Broder is a super bounce ball of abundant energy and style, always eager to put on a show for you. Backed by trumpeter/band leader Paul Litteral and his gang of jazz cats, Broder's Louis is at times beguiling, but always likable, with enough charm to please all the women in his life, from his wife to his goombah to his mom (oh those Sicilian boys).

With the band on the road playing dive after dive, Louis is pressed to find a new sound. Big Band Jazz ain't hip no more. Desperate for something that'll stick, Louis gets talked into letting a teenage girl on stage. Enter Keely Smith, all 16 years of church home values and endless talent.

Smith's Keely begins as the most innocent of teens thrust into a very adult, very male environment. Her demeanor is always classy, but true to her values. As she grows up before the audience's eyes, she never strays from that, until, ultimately, her hand is forced.

When she shines in a one-shot audition, Louis figures he's found it - a new sound, a new energy, and, unwittingly, a new girl to manage in his life.

From there, it's off to the desert and Las Vegas, where the act slowly finds an audience. Louis struggles to keep things together both on stage and on the home front, while Keely works to find herself. LIke any good rock biopic, their struggle's eventually intertwine, and true love is shaped from the heavens.

And then it's time to sing and dance and watch Keely grow into a force. Sharing a natural chemistry, Broder and Smith bring Louis & Keely to life in song after song. "Them There Eyes," "Hey Boy, Hey Girl" "I'm In The Mood for Love," all the hits keep coming, as the band swings, Louis bops, and Keely classes up the joint in perfect synch.

When the chairman of the board himself, Frank Sinatra, gives his blessing, you feel as if that will be the tipping point, but it turns in the wrong direction.

That's because like all good rock biopics, the stars have to shine too bright. When Keely's name is hoisted above Louis' on the marquee, that old Sicilian jealousy settles in. Not even the music can help bring our lovers back together.

By the time Keely's turned into a heartbroken starlet, and the audience has turned on Louis, we are left with only the saddest of love songs, ones that are sung from experience.

Which is what makes "Louis & Keely" so special: that it tells the story through song is not as remarkable as how the tone of the music is turned up as we get to know and fall in love with the main characters. Las Vegas's first couple were one-of-a-kind, and as we witness their joy and pain channeled through their music, we want their love to last.

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