Critic's Choice

'Louis & Keely' at the Geffen: It's still got that swing

Vintage nightclub artistry ignites palpable frissons around the Geffen Playhouse, where “Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara” has sailed back in triumph.

From its hugely acclaimed premiere in 2008 at Sacred Fools Theater to its 2009 rethink at the Geffen Playhouse, where it broke house records, “Louis & Keely: 'Live' at the Sahara” was a genuine phenomenon, the kind of breakout hit that vindicated the embattled Actors' Equity 99-seat waiver system as a way to develop new material.

Now the show has returned to L.A. from an acclaimed Chicago run, again under the direction of filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who made his stage debut with "Louis & Keely" back in 2009. Although some measure of intimacy has been lost, the production remains original, most entertaining and frequently electrifying.

This is partly due to Hackford’s tightened grip on the script (credited to him and originators Vanessa Claire Stewart and Jake Broder), which combines concert musical and “A Star Is Born”-flavored biopic. Jazz firebrand Louis Prima discovers diffident teenager Dorothy Keely, renames her Keely Smith, and their professional collaboration revolutionizes the Las Vegas lounge scene as their personal union goes downhill. The scenario unfolds as a series of recollections by Prima near the end of his life, illustrated by the swinging, toe-tapping music.

Buoyed by a superb band led by musical director Paul Litteral, “Louis & Keely” grabs the listener’s solar plexus from the first trumpet riff and audience address by Prima (a magnificently invested Anthony Crivello) to the heartbreaking climactic “Autumn Leaves” from Smith (Stewart, more assured and affecting than ever).

The evocation of the duo’s evolving, gonzo-Italian-hepcat-vs.-deadpan-Cherokee-canary act is worth volumes of biographical footnotes, and the signature numbers bubble up from the action with invigorating zest. “That Ol’ Black Magic,” “Pennies From Heaven” and “Ai Ai Ai” inform the proceedings in seemingly spontaneous manner, with saxophonist Colin Kupka’s turn as Sam Butera but one of the aspects that justify admission.

Hackford maneuvers the stage pictures around producer Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay’s orb-bedecked scenic design with a minimum of fuss and considerable fluidity, aided by designer Christopher Ash’s invaluable lighting and projections, Vernel Bagneris' choreography and Erik Carstensen's sound design. If the transformation of the Geffen's Gil Cates Theater into a showroom isn’t quite absolute, it generally suffices, with the television studio sequence a suave tour-de-force.

As Prima, Crivello doesn’t replicate the force-of-nature energy and vocals that Broder did years ago -- and indeed, who could? But Crivello does create his own, entirely credible portrayal. All the essential details -- self-deprecating goombah humor, wild-limbed physicality, intractable bandleader bravado -- are present, and the actor wields his legitimate tenor into scorching, wailing jazz territory with arresting results.

Stewart is right there with him, her Smith a marvel of gradated character development. The starstruck girl in a bathing suit -- costumer Melissa Bruning’s period garb is another plus -- becomes an assertive song stylist and spouse before our eyes and ears. Stewart’s features and mezzo aren’t synonymous with Smith’s, yet the precise sense of portraiture is remarkable, and she and Crivello exhibit spot-on chemistry.

The added utility players have been better integrated, with the ever-welcome Erin Matthews vanishing inside Smith’s mother, Prima’s wife, Jean Harlow and a slew of “duchesses” with delicious ease. True, Paul Perroni doesn’t really evoke Frank Sinatra, whose fateful advent into the duo’s rising fortunes now heralds intermission -- I kept thinking Johnnie Ray morphed with Dean Martin -- but his histrionic and performing chops are proficient.

One could fault certain patches of dialogue that telegraph too much in too short a time, particularly as Louis and Keely’s marriage begins to unravel. For all its aural and visual aplomb, the larger presentation doesn’t carry the same inexorable intensity the original possessed by virtue of its galvanic execution in a small house.

Yet the gain is a heightened authentic show-biz ambience and a roomier vehicle in which the slightly surreal mix of light and dark can travel, not least in Stewart’s aching “I Wish You Love” recording session and Crivello’s house-stilling post-Keely breakdown.

Because when “Louis & Keely” turns its stellar headliners loose on the material, it’s arguably the most infectious show in town, and it should head east in due course. As for its run here, score your tickets now.

“Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara,” Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 17. $43-$76. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time:  2 hours, 15 minutes.

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