Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara

by Trevor Thomas

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 2, 2008

The ad for "Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara."
The ad for "Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara."  

Louis Prima was New Orleans' other famous Louis. Like the great "Satchmo" Armstrong, Louis Prima was born in the Crescent City at the beginning of the last century. He worked throughout the jazz decades as both a singer and bandleader, but by the early 1950s the gigs had dried up. With a pregnant fourth wife (singing partner Keely Smith) and in serious need of a regular paycheck, Prima called up Bill Nelson who booked for the Sahara in Las Vegas. Though his friend, fellow bandleader Cab Calloway warned him they would hate working the cramped Sahara lounge, Prima and Smith agreed to a contract of five shows a night starting at 11 p.m. They'd finish up each morning around 6 a.m. just as the Strip's famed all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets got hopping.

Nowadays, this kind of show has been eclipsed by Montreal circuses and overproduced celebrity mega-acts, but in its heyday the Vegas lounge act pioneered by Louis Prima and Keely Smith was an iconic fixture on the Strip, reaching its zenith in the famed late-night impromptu performances of Sinatra's "Rat Pack" in the lounge of the old Sands Hotel.

In Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara,, now onstage at the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles, performer/authors Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith pay homage to the original act and its stars. They knock the roof right off the joint. The little theater is a perfect venue -- about the size of a typical Vegas lounge in the 1950s (alas, without the beverage service). Ms. Smith and Mr. Broder deftly recreate the original act, a lively blend of husband/wife insult comedy and bop renditions of standards like "Angelina, "That Old Black Magic" and "Sheik of Araby."

Mr. Broder and Ms. Smith portray the pair with great respect and fidelity. They absolutely nail the famed stage personas of Louis and Keely - her deadpan putdowns and his zany goofiness. (Sonny and Cher lifted their act wholesale from these two). Where the show falters a bit is in the biographical overlay. In a context reminiscent of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret," where songs serve as wry dramatic commentary, the authors try to force classics like "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Autumn Leaves" into a duty for which they were not intended. As Keely, Ms. Smith portrays the schizoid life of a charming stage performer forced in her offstage life to suffer an overbearing, disloyal, and narcissistic partner. A challenging task in the first place, trying to do it musically via songs not written specifically for that purpose becomes problematic at moments.

Still, both performers are top notch. Jake Broder captures the frenetic onstage energy of Louis Prima along with his jaw dropping vocal virtuosity. His is not a big voice, but it is agile and exciting, especially when imitating Prima's dizzying jazz scatting. His rendition of Prima's signature "Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody" (with which David Lee Roth made a small fortune via a video cover in 1985) is alone worth the price of a ticket. Vanessa Claire Smith portrays Keely Smith's onstage charm beautifully. Her renditions of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Embraceable You" are gorgeous.

The band is terrific. They're all solid musicians and have rehearsed to within an inch of their lives. As bandleader Sam Butera, tenor saxophonist Colin Kupka is a standout. Call the butcher -- this guy has chops. His command of the instrument's jazz idiom is masterful. No less dexterous, Jeff Markgraf plays a mean slap bass and pianist Richard Levinson seems to be one of those guys with extra fingers on each hand. Others in this talented ensemble, who also provide background vocals and portray minor characters, include musical director and saxophonist Dennis Kaye, drummer Michael L. Solomon, trombonist Brian Wallis and trumpeter "Hollywood" Paul Litteral.

Though perhaps just a matter of opening night hiccups, sound is a problem. The single stage mike is too hot by far and once both Mr. Broder and Ms. Smith step back from its two foot pickup area, they neglect to ratchet up their voices to compensate for the extreme drop-off. The sound design by Jamie Robledo also features a singularly unpleasant ambient track that drowns out the performers whenever they retire to side sets for intimate scenes. Dump it. Direction is by Jeremy Aldrige, costumes by Kat Bardot, sets by Dave Knutson and lighting design is by Heatherlynn Gonzalez.

Performances Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through July 27, 2008. The Sacred Fools Theatre Company is at 660 N. Heliotrope Dr. in Hollywood, 1/2 block south of Melrose and 4 blocks east of Normandie. Tickets at www.sacredfools.org or by calling (310) 281-8337.