It’s been a while since a piece of theater has made me cry not from mere sadness or pity, but from witnessing the pain caused by lost love and overwhelming hubris. But Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara, which has just reopened at the Geffen Playhouse, ends on such a devastating note. Indeed, the performances of writers and stars Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith, who play singers Louis Prima and Keely Smith — aided by the show’s new director, Taylor Hackford — connect so deeply that their despair almost physically spills off into the audience.
In the 1940s, the big-voiced Prima had already become a has-been. Though his swing anthem “Sing Sing Sing” had become a standard, his New Orleans brand of music had gone south and American music had left him behind. Hoping to revitalize his career, he brings on a Virginia Beach native with a smoky voice, renames her Keely Smith, and hires her for the band. The pair’s banter and kinetic chemistry revives the band’s fame as they find a permanent home at the Sahara hotel in then-booming Las Vegas.
But more importantly, Louis and Keely cannot resist each other’s charms and eventually marry. Sadly, the deadly sin of jealousy tears the two apart as Louis finds his protégé surpassing him as a solo sensation on the Capital Records label of pal Frank Sinatra (coolly played and sung by Nick Cagle).
By refashioning the audience into characters in the play, we feel even more attached to Louis and Keely’s fates, anguishing along with them. In addition, the audience’s applause feeds the characters on stage, and when Broder’s Louis believes the proper respect hasn’t been given, he holds the stage hostage until he gets the adulation he requires.
Meanwhile, because of the thrilling use of many of the duo’s famous numbers, such as “Just A Gigolo,” “Angelina,” and “Pack Your Clothes,” the production becomes an evening of musical showstoppers. However, the production cleverly uses the songs to comment on the couple’s love affair, from its burgeoning to its derailment.
As performers, Broder and Smith are extraordinary. He is a volcanic eruption, while she is the smooth lava that flows over him. When they ping-pong their song phrases at each other, it’s foreplay for a passionate love affair. The band, who all play roles, have a crisp sound that helps the songs become toe-tapping triumphs. Although most have more presence in their sound than their line readings, each member’s contribution to the magic that is Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara cannot be ignored.