opening-night review of *Pete 'n' Keely*
at Actors Rep through April 19
How do you make audiences today connect with a musical (set 40 years ago) that depicts a singing duo (whose popularity was already fading even then)? Even for older baby boomers, the finger-snappin' hep-cat vocal cool of a couple of characters like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme will be a fading (or non-existent) memory. Then there are those who aren't yet qualified to join AARP....
But the self-important smarminess of a gleaming-toothed Robert Goulet-type -- or a cheesy-grinned Steve Lawrence type -- is the sort of bogus behavior that even young people today readily identify. They know fakery when they see it, and they know it's good for a laugh.
The way you get audiences (of whatever age) to connect with a past-its-prime musical style is to display some marital tension, fast-paced banter, vocal assurance, knowing self-mockery and jaw-dropping harmonies.
The way to transcend boundaries of age and musical taste is to deliver a funny, polished, sentimental, appealing, accomplished musical like *Pete 'n' Keely* (at ARt through April 19).
Director Michael Weaver's rendition of this off-Broadway hit is forever teetering on the edge of campiness and forever just pulling back from the precipice. Musically, the show's greatest instance of variety is the Act One curtain number, a musical travelogue that hits about 14 key changes en route to mentioning all 50 states. But emotionally as well, this show is filled with sudden tonal changes and plenty of variety.
Consider, for example, Abbey Crawford's transition from the campiness of her half of "Besame Mucho" (sporting a fake mustache and butting in on Pete's singing-waiter gig) to her sincere feeling in the signature love duet "This Could Be the Start of
Something Big" and then back to overdoing the hot-and-heavy routine toward the end of that same song. *Pete 'n' Keely* succeeds (both in James Hindman's book of the musical and in this production) because of a willingness to the idealized and cynical extremes: Yes, these are beautiful love songs, full of feeling. And yes, these two characters onstage are full of anger and resentment -- directed squarely at one another.
The fictional setup is that a couple of once-married swingin' Sixties singers have reunited for a single night, for yet another last-gasp TV special meant to resuscitate their careers -- five years after their divorce.
We get a little bit of their fictional biographies and 22 musical numbers -- all of them fine and half a dozen of them truly exceptional. For all his wholesome play-acting as Pete, Curt Olds isn't above a little playing to the audience or sexual innuendo. (Neither is Crawford's Keely.) In "(You Give Me) Fever" (associated with Peggy Lee), Olds lasers in on an embarrassed front-row female playgoer -- he's all thrusting hips and sashaying butt, his floral-print shirt unbuttoned down to here, his lips pursed with put-on desire. And he ends the torch song by lighting his own fire by doing gymnastics with a barstool, making love to it as if there's no tomorrow.
There are other highlights as well: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," rather incredibly, gets jazzed up with harmonizing that clicks over into upstaging and marital squabbling -- resentment amid the patriotism.
"Secret Love," associated with Doris Day, paints a portrait of rapturous love between Pete and Keely -- though somehow during this duet, your eyes always end up going toward Crawford.
For her solo shot after Olds's sultry "Fever," Crawford has "Black Coffee" -- less showy and more bluesy. But she
Of the pair, Olds is slightly the better comic actor, Crawford slightly the better singer. (They're still a well-matched pair.) Olds -- perky with a head tilt -- lets his wrists droop while executing his hep-cat hip-swivels. He sinks to his knees in rage, lets his grimace-grins show resentment while harmonizing, and, when Keely exasperates him most, flops all four limbs simulataneously in comic consternation.
Jessica Ray's costumes don't match the garishness of Bob Mackie's originals, of course -- but they characterize Pete and (especially) Keely quite well. From frilly rose gown to pistachio-green chiffon, from baby-doll flounce to low-cut black lace, Keely's got the look of a woman clinging to personal elegance gone by. Pete's tuxes, meanwhile, similarly reflect the potential and stumbling of the man inside them, ranging as they do from tasteful to lounge lizard.
The show has its drawbacks, naturally. The "Tony 'n' Cleo" spoof of poor taste in musicals descended mostly into mere silliness. In the opening number, today's cordless mics clashed with looping microphone cords of the Sixties. A joke about strings and trumpets, meant to ask indulgence for the show's limitations of musical scale, came out as confusing and flat. Olds' voice can be distracting in Pete's most sarcastic passages, taking on a snarling, nasal quality. Both performers displayed some sporadic problems with breathing and projection (though allowances need to be made -- it's a very active, hip-swayin' show). The final reconciliation feels like a crowd-pleaser, even if it's manipulated out of nowhere.
But these are small blemishes on an accomplished and even moving musical. By appealing to young and old, idealistic and jaded, *Pete 'n' Keely* exemplifies what they used to call real entertainment: based on polish, refinement and demonstrable talent. *American Idol* and YouTube have us over-committed to delusions of our own talent. *Pete 'n' Keely,* especially in the performances of Crawford and Olds, remind us that the Sixties decade wasn't just a series of cheesy TV commercials. We don't have a monopoly on irony any more than the swingin' sweethearts were the only ones who could appreciate a pretty love song. Weaver's production of *Pete 'n' Keely* will make you smile, whatever your musical tastes or capacity for sentimental love-displays.