"Louis & Keely 'Live' at the Sahara," a musical homage to the 1950s Vegas act and stormy marriage of Louis Prima and Keely Smith, opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse. If the scenario sounds oddly familiar, it's not just you.
The show opened at the Geffen Playhouse once before, in 2009. After premiering at the 99-seat Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood, it ran at the Geffen for a record-breaking eight months and swept the local stage awards. It remains a touchstone for L.A.'s small-theater community: the little musical that made good.
Costar Vanessa Claire Stewart describes it as a Cinderella story: In summer 2008, the filmmaker Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Ray") saw "Louis & Keely" at Sacred Fools. Stewart and Jake Broder had written the show and played the demanding, outsized roles.
"Sacred Fools didn't even have an air conditioner, we were so poor," Stewart recalls, but despite the heat, the show attracted buzz. "Taylor wrote us a note on a napkin: 'I'd like to meet you guys. Here's my information.'" Stewart mimes looking up from the napkin to Broder in wild surmise. "We were, like, 'Aahh!'"
Hackford knew Keely Smith, now in her 80s. (Prima died in 1978.)
"When I saw the show at Sacred Fools, it was wonderful," Hackford says. "A lot of music, not as much book as I thought it should have."
The love story reminded him of "A Star Is Born" and "Pygmalion."
"Louis was 23 years older than Keely," Hackford says. "You watch him at the end of an illustrious career, reinventing himself with this young novice. There was no lounge act in Vegas before Louis and Keely. They came with a two-week gig to the Sahara, and they were on the floor of the casino, with slot machines, dice tables and card tables all around them. When you have that kind of distraction, you've got to be good. And they were."
The two became the toast of Vegas, Hackford says. The headliners — the Frank Sinatras and the Dinah Shores and the Red Skeltons of the eras — ended their shows at 12:30 at night and then went to Louis and Keely, he says.
Hackford, a lifelong fan, marvels at Prima's talents.
"He was a great musician," Hackford says. "He really knew how to run a band, and his inspiration was what drove all of us, starting with Vanessa."
Stewart, who grew up in New Orleans, says her grandfather loved Prima's music.
"It reminded me of home," she says. "I was actually researching Louis Prima for a different project, but the more I got to know him, the more I realized that the love story was actually the story to tell. And then I realized that Keely's voice kind of sits where mine does, and we both have that dry sense of humor."
Hackford not only revised the story with Stewart and Broder but also directed the Geffen's 2009 production — his first time directing for the stage — and even helped to finance it. An initial five-week run was extended multiple times. Along the way, Stewart, who was Vanessa Claire Smith in those days, met actor French Stewart — at the time, a cast member of "Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas" — in the Geffen's greenroom. They married in 2011 and have a daughter.
Meanwhile, the Cinderella story took an unexpected turn: Hackford parted ways with "Louis & Keely." Although the Geffen production had been a success, Hackford's revisions hadn't thrilled everybody. L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the performances and the music but wrote, "Less successful is the way the piece has been dramatically tweaked here and there to resemble a biopic." Media reports have suggested that artistic differences prompted Hackford's departure and that Stewart and Broder were retooling the show for a national tour and possible Broadway run, but Hackford says the split was simply the result of busy artists pursuing careers.
"I went off and did some movies and TV pilots," he says. Stewart wrote another successful play, "Stoneface," starring her new husband as Buster Keaton. Broder was busy with projects, including a new play, "Miravel." But Broder and Stewart hadn't forgotten Louis and Keely.
Now with Hackford again at the helm and Stewart back as Keely, Tony-winner Anthony Crivello ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") is taking over the role of Louis. The three take a break from rehearsal one recent morning to explain how they all arrived here: the affable Hackford, a relaxed pitchman after his years in Hollywood; Stewart, nursing a sore throat and wearing shoulder-length honey-colored hair instead of the severe black pageboy she dons as Keely; and Crivello, the Broadway veteran, slim, soft-spoken and craggily handsome.
This Cinderella story also has called in a second Prince Charming, performer and impresario Hershey Felder ("Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin").
"Hershey had seen the show here at the Geffen, and he and I had become friends," Hackford says. "We partnered up, and with our own money we put this show together and went to Chicago."
Their new "Louis & Keely" premiered at Chicago's Royal George Theatre in April. After its engagement on the Geffen's main stage, it will play at the Laguna Playhouse from Feb. 24 to March 27. Other venues may follow.
"I'm not one of those people who are hysterical about getting to New York," Hackford says. "The idea is, let's play the show for a lot of audiences, let's see it grow, and make sure that we have something that is worthy. We'll see what happens."
The production has changed significantly since it last appeared at the Geffen, he says.
"We have a completely new opening and closing," he says. "We have three new numbers we didn't do in Chicago. We have an intermission now. It's like the show's grown up."
Perhaps the most obvious change is Crivello as Louis. Broder and his wife were having their second baby, so the man who originated the role and cowrote the show couldn't leave L.A. for Chicago. By telephone Broder describes the 350 times he played Prima in Los Angeles as "a blast" and says the show remains an important chapter in his life.
"We named our baby Louis," Broder says. "It's a hell of a show. Taylor is a fantastic director. He has a vision, which is very strong, and he's uniquely qualified in his dramatic skills, his knowledge of music and his understanding of audiences to bring this show not only to fans of Louis and Keely but also to the wider world. I know Tony Crivello's going to be great."
Hackford says that recasting the show was tough but that "sometimes misfortune blesses you."
"Hershey knew Tony," Hackford says. "Tony has had an illustrious career. He won a Tony, he played the Phantom for 61/2 years on Vegas." Like Prima, Crivello is Sicilian. Also fittingly, Crivello is about 20 years older than Stewart.
"The first time Keely Smith's manager, Susie, saw us together, she just cried," Stewart says. "She was, like, a wreck."
Crivello says the roles are tremendous challenges — a marathon not only for the cast but also for the band.
"One of the greatest compliments ever paid me was by Susie: After she saw the show, she said, 'Boy, you really move like Louis,'" Crivello says.
To capture Prima's loose-limbed, manic dance moves, Crivello relied not only on the choreography of Vernel Bagneris but also on personal experience.
"Louis Prima, for a Sicilian boy, is a rite of passage," he says: You're raised on tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Giuseppe Di Stefano, but you're also raised on Prima and Sinatra.
Like Broder before him, Crivello doesn't impersonate Prima. He took a stab at Prima's gritty, high-pitched tone, but that started to grind his vocal cords.
"There is a little bit of a rasp that I'm doing," the actor says, "but the most important thing is trying to grab the essence of who these people are and the essence of the relationship between the two of them."
Keely Smith has seen the show several times and given Stewart her blessing. The first time Hackford brought her to the Matrix Theatre in L.A., where the show played after Sacred Fools, Stewart says.
"I had always told everyone, 'If she ever comes, I don't want to know about it.' But when I went onstage that night — I mean, the house is only three rows deep … I watched her, watch me, be her."
At the end of the show, the two women met in the lobby.
"She was like, 'You got it, kid,'" Stewart says. "I think I cried."
"I know you cried," Hackford adds.
Smith also shared with Hackford her thoughts on what else the show had gotten right and what it hadn't. The team revised the script accordingly.
"She told me things she never told anybody else. That's what so wonderful about it," Hackford says. "It's not our imagining. It's what happened."