Old Black Magic (Emphasis on the Old)

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Louis Prima was one of the most famous American Pop Musicians of the mid-20th century. His nickname was the "King of the Swingers" and from the 1940's up until his death in 1978, he was a fixture at nightclubs, on television specials and most of all, in Vegas.

These years in Las Vegas, where Prima headlined with a younger woman named Keely Smith, make up the backbone of a new musical drama titled Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara. Written by Vanessa Claire Smith (no relation to the real Keely Smith) and Jake Broder, the two actors who play Keely and Louis, this is a local musical that has caught on. It received its world premiere at the Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood back in June and then pulled off a rare feat for a small, LA musical: due to popular demand, it moved to another 99-seat theater just down Melrose Boulevard for an extended run.

This ten-person show has been playing here since September, and just last month Louis and Keely earned another distinction by winning L.A.'s 2008 Ovation Award for Best Musical in an Intimate Theatre.

Given the short lives of most homegrown musicals, Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara is success—an achievement reflected in the fact that the performance I attended was packed…which is not often the case at LA's 99-seat theaters.

So this is the good news…the bad news is the show, while lively and often entertaining, is not exactly great theater…nor does it bode well for the future of great musical theater, especially here in Los Angeles.

First, the show. Mr. Broder and Ms. Smith have assembled a crude, yet clear narrative out of Louis and Keely's on-stage and off-stage dramas. I can't speak to how accurate it is, but it plays like your typical show-biz biography: a match made in heaven eventually goes sour, yet the artistic respect for each other wins out even after things get messy.

It all fits together nicely and the musical numbers—big band standards from the post-war era—keep the story swinging. There are no particularly poignant uses of song to illustrate an emotion that hasn't already been explicitly spelled out in the script, but the music is well performed by the seven-piece on stage band.

Broder is the anchor of the show—even though he doesn't look much like Prima, he radiates a manic, eager to please charisma that feels authentic. What's more, he seems to be able to sweat on cue, which makes the character's transitions from off-stage chaos to on-stage coolness feel convincing.

Smith is less compelling as Keely. Her character feels underwritten and as an actress, and she doesn't fill in the blanks with the same ease or force that her co-star does.

What concerns me more is that these two young actors, in fashioning material for themselves, have created something very old-fashioned. Instead of using innovative storytelling or daring stagecraft to introduce Prima and Smith's act to a new generation and audience, Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara seems pitched mainly to people old enough to have seen the real Louis and Keely, live at the Sahara.

This seems to have helped the show at the box-office, but this success (along with the inexplicable success of the show Louis and Keely beat out for their Ovation Award, The Marvelous Wonderettes, another juke-box, nostalgia piece) suggests that the only way to find an audience with a new musical in LA, is to use the theater as a sort of memory lane for senior citizens

Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara runs through December 21 at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.