Sally Mayes and George Dvorskyin Pete ?n? Keely(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Sally Mayes and George Dvorsky
in Pete ?n? Keely
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Remember what it felt like to laugh throughout a show, to hear an audience whoop and holler during a performance? The current resident at the John Houseman Theater on 42nd Street, Pete 'n' Keely is easily the biggest new laugh riot in town. James Hindman (book), Mark Waldrop (director), and Patrick S. Brady (arrangements, additional music, musical direction) have teamed up to recreate one of those cheesy 1960s television variety shows, and the result is as pure a pleasure as a candied apple after a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Pete 'n' Keely's bizarre TV world is peopled by a pair of out-of-favor former television personalities, Pete (George Dvorsky) and his ex-wife/singing partner Keely (Sally Mayes). The time is 1968 and the couple, after a period of purgatory -- i.e., bus and truck tours of Broadway shows and limp solo albums -- has been enticed back before the cameras for a reunion special. Pete and Keely are sweethearts à la Sonny and Cher, which is to say that much their humor is based on their making fun of each other. Pete looks like a cross between the Marlboro man and a male porn star (women loved those big, bushy mustaches in the '60s!) while Keely calls to mind both Tammy Faye and Dolly Parton: She's petite, busty, and dripping in rhinestones. Pete and Keely are the kind of couple we all love to cringe at; think Roy and Dale without the horses. As the heat of nostalgia fires up the stage of the John Houseman, sanity takes flight and sappy songs and feather boas fill the simulated sound stage where the Pete 'n' Keely show is being taped before a live audience (us).

What Pete 'n' Keely has in spades is an undeniable love for all things kitsch. This sentiment is laid on with such a velvety touch that even the hardest-hearted of people should succumb to spasms of laughter. Every cockeyed detail of the show is right, from the perky, onstage piano, bass, and drum players to lighting designer F. Mitchell Dana's brilliant use of beige and Ray Klausen's pop set, which looks like a reject from Pee Wee's Playhouse. But nothing beats Bob Mackie's dazzling costumes. No one can make a woman look more seductive, and Mackie's gowns for Keely are a miracle of sequined madness, transforming Sally Mayes into a shimmering goddess of overindulgence. Then there's George Dvorsky's sleek, bell-bottomed tuxedo -- way cool!

A good deal of Pete 'n' Keely's spunk is the result of Waldrop's pitch-perfect direction. Here is an imaginative director taking every backstage cliché and turning it inside out, embracing kitsch like your old aunt would hug a kitty cat. The director of the wildly successful When Pigs Fly and Bette Midler's recent, triumphant "Divine Miss Millennium Tour," Waldrop has proven once again that he has the Midas touch for mirth.

Hindman's book never lets Pete and Keely pander for a laugh; rather, the humor comes from just watching this odd couple get through a day's work without tearing each other apart. Dvorsky and Mayes send up the songs they sing but also sell them with gusto, and there are many new and old gems here. It's a thrill to hear the full-voiced Mayes belt out Davenport & Cooley's "Fever" and Burke & Van Heusen's "But Beautiful." Egged on by an ever-present APPLAUSE sign, the audience also gives a theater-rattling reception to the new songs by Brady and Waldrop, such as "Hello, Egypt!" and "Too Fat to Fit."

Pete 'n' Keely is a delicious puff pastry. Until Mamma Mia! comes a courtin' Broadway, this easy, breezy little show will remain the best crowd pleaser in town. Take grandma along to see it, and watch her laugh her stockings off.