Saturday, January 2, 2016

Louis and Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara Stars Discuss Bringing the Show Back to LA

Vanessa Claire Stewart and Anthony Crivello as Louis and Keely
Photos by Eighty-Eight Entertainment

Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara returns to the Geffen Playhouse this month in a revamped production produced by the award-winning Hershey Felder. Written by Vanessa Claire Stewart, Taylor Hackford and Jake Broder and directed by Taylor Hackford, it is the story of Louis Prima and Keely Smith whose larger-than-life marriage and groundbreaking Las Vegas act featured an amazing cavalcade of hits that would forever secure their place in American musical history.

The show stars Anthony Crivello, Tony Award-winner for his performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Ovation Award winner Vanessa Claire Stewart, who originated the role of Keely Smith. This is part of a new national tour based on the recent hit Chicago production featuring Crivello and Stewart. It originated here in LA and it was terrific the first time around where I saw it in the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. Now it will play the main stage at the Geffen through January 17 before continuing on to the Laguna Playhouse where it will open February 24. 

I asked Stewart and Crivello about the show’s return and what we can expect to see this time around. From the sound of it, the energy is higher than ever and should make for one great night out.


Vanessa, as a writer, how has the show changed since it was first seen at the Geffen?

Since the Geffen, the show has grown in many ways! We really wanted Louis and Keely to “live” at the Sahara, so we put more of their personal moments on stage. We really tried to bring more of the act into the storytelling by adding more of their comedic bits and three additional new songs.

The point of view of the piece has changed quite a bit as we needed the piece to fill a bigger space. When we were previously at the Geffen, the space was more intimate (135 seats). We learned in Chicago that the story had to be told in a different way because the space had expanded. We also added an intermission, which helps our patrons. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people think.

Has your performance of Keely developed in any surprising ways?

A lot has happened since our initial run here! I got married and had a baby! So the push and pull that Keely experiences balancing family and work really tugs at me now in a way that it didn’t before. Also, I feel that my voice has grown a lot since my initial run here. While we were on hiatus, I wanted to grow as a musician so I did a few gigs around town as a jazz vocalist to really understand that side of things. It was a great learning experience for me.

Script wise, we really tried to develop the love story even more and make Keely more assertive than she was before. I’m enjoying her strength in this one. I’ve found that as I’ve grown up, so has the character.

Anthony, what has been your experience bringing such a big personality as Louis Prima to life? Tell us about the challenges and the fun of it.

Louis Prima is indeed a challenging role – both physically and emotionally. 118 pages of text and song to portray Louis is a challenge in and of itself: massive research, reading biographies, studying video of their act, watching documentary…it’s all part of the building process. Mr. Prima’s larger than life personality demands 110%. To give the subject matter his full due, there is no other way.

Our director Taylor Hackford and our choreographer Vernel Bagneris have paid acute attention to the movement, the style, ‘the delivery’ of Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The show has the indelible earmarks of a Hershey Felder Presents production in its classy presentation.

And the piece is constructed in such a wonderful way to replicate their energy and charisma, as well as Louis and Keely’s humor. Not as an impersonation but rather, to recreate the essence, the sound, the humor, the inspired madness, the human vulnerability, and the flaws.

The Pygmalion story of mentor and pupil, and the love story between Louis and Keely is wonderful fodder for an actor. Add to that our kick-ass band, and “Lazzes Les Bon Temps Rouler” is the appropriate axiom for this play/musical.

It sounds like you’re having a blast.

To sing these unforgettable songs: “Just a Gigalo,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Hey Boy, Hey Girl,” “That Old Black Magic,” “My Sweet Embraceable You,” “Angelina, Zooma-Zooma”... what more can an actor/singer/comic ask for? We can hear the audiences singing along. We see their smiles and hear their laughter. We see their tears. That is gold. 

Most importantly, there is exhilaration in interacting with the audience. Breaking the ‘fourth wall’ to create a night club atmosphere, to improvise and play the crowd nightly, is such fun. There is spontaneity that Vanessa and I share with them each performance. I believe that is the most rewarding part for us both.

The joy of portraying these legends of Las Vegas, these giants of the music and entertainment industry – it’s a delight. And to be able to introduce Louis Prima (and Keely Smith) to a new generation ... to bring them to ‘life’ ... is a benchmark in my career as an actor... and an unmitigated, gratifying ‘romp.’


Hershey Felder Presents Taylor Hackford’s
LOUIS & KEELY: ‘LIVE’ AT THE SAHARA
Written by Vanessa Claire Stewart, Taylor Hackford and Jake Broder
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Now through January 17, 2016
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets: www.geffenplayhouse.com or (310) 208-5454.

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