BWW Reviews: Stages PETE N KEELY is Gauche, Clean Fun
Before Jay and Bey were on the run, Pete n' Keely were running the strip. Now, they're two aging stars who will do anything for a comeback - even if it means working together. Five years after a divorce and an unsuccessful stint at Caesar's Palace, the couple reunites to stage a career-saving telecast live at NBC television studios in New York City.
The only hitch: they hate each other. Understandable considering Keely's a lush and Pete's an unfaithful cur. With this behind-the-scenes drama, it's doubtful they'll make it through the show without killing each other.
But they do. Barely.
Director Kenn McLaughlin designs a lively production full of schmaltz and cigarettes. Literally. At several points during the play a resigned stagehand moves languidly to and fro with a mic in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. He has coached his cast well. It is hard be authentic and inauthentic simultaneously.
Susan Koozin (Keely Stevens), as the introductory song "It's Us Again" says, is no Judy Garland. She is, however, a modern version of Lucille Ball. And like the late legend, her face is made of rubber. Much of the hilarity of her character was created with minute, fluid changes in facial expression. And nothing needs to be said about that voice. Over and over again, she steals the show. But this is no knock on the talented David Wald (Pete Bartel). The play was clearly written this way. And this is no knock on the play. It clearly mimics reality. Think Ricky and Lucy, Burns and Allen or Bobby and Whitney. Speaking of Whitney, Susan Koozin has the Whitney "I know I am killing this song" Houston face and head nod down.
David Wald (Pete) is no diva. That makes his role very difficult. He must be talented but not too talented. He must make it clear that his character, while talented, isn't as passionate about show business as he is about Keely. Somehow, David Wald does just this while singing like Frank Sinatra.
Despite David Wald's fine performance, I can't shake the feeling that his Pete should be more like George Burns - someone who has enough one-liners up his sleeve to trade barbs with Susan Koozin's Keely. Pete and Keely's constant bickering is just as entertaining as the songs. But that is not the character as written. Pete dreams of playing baseball professionally and coming home to a house full of kids and a homemaking wife. Moreover, if Pete could outwit Keely with words, he wouldn't need all the passive aggressive physicality David Wald so deftly employs with, I'm sure, the help of Choreographer Krissy Richmond.
I was bowled over by Costume Designer Katherine Snider's choices. They are the primary reason PETE N' KEELY is such gauche fun. The first production of PETE N' KEELY featured costumes designed by Bob Mackie so it stands to reason they are inspired by the great designer's work. The band wears suits. In Act I, Katherine Snider dresses Keely in a gorgeous black and white gown with fish scale detailings and pairs it with a sheer jacket made of some unnatural man-made material of dubious origins. The cherry on top? The Sonny and Cher inspired matching outfits and the Tony and Cleo costumes.
Before the show began, I was already impressed by Scenic Designer Kevin Holden's set of geometric shapes and Properties Designer Jodi Bobrovsky replicas of the NBC cameras of years bygone.
Musical Director Steven Jones coaches vocal performances that are both pale imitations of Pete and Keely's more famous counterparts but still fantastic interpretations on their own.
Musicians Steven Jones (Piano/Conductor), Zachary Lerner (Trumpet/Flugelhorn), Douglas Wright (Flute/Clarinet/Sax), Curry Duffey/John Koozin (Bass) and Jack Westmoreland (Drums) are in excellent form.
The band allowed me to reminisce about the good old days with my ears while my mind allowed me to ponder why the Petes and Keelys of the world fell out of favor. With the double act's hilarious duet of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," it is clear that they are not as legendary as Judy Garland nor, as we see in Pete's smooth, vanilla flavored rendition of "Fever," are they as groovy as La Lupe.
I do have two minor quibbles. Quibbles so minor that using both "quibble" and "minor" is not a redundancy.
Projection Designer Kevan Loney's soft-focused projections are successful at keeping focus on other more key aspects of the production. And they are effective at portraying Pete and Keely's old photographs as relics from an almost imperceptible past. And the juxtaposition of the black and white, soft-focused images of the past pairs nicely with the sequins and sharp angles of the present. But, somehow, I still would have preferred sharper images. Call me crazy, but it's not the 70s if my eyes aren't being gouged with clashing colors and shapes.
It is also possible that the meaning and usefulness of the (somewhat) faint projections can be found in my discomfort. PETE N' KEELY is not meant to be all sequins and fabulous man wigs. There are miserable, wounded human beings with severe character flaws hiding beneath those plastic smiles and stale routines. Being subtly made aware of this doesn't rain on my parade, but it definitely drizzles on it a bit. However, with my opinion stated, I'll let you, the audience, decide.
Moving on to my final quibble, "The Cross Country Tour" medley. It slowed the show down. But, to be fair to the production, I was born in the 1980s. My age became very relevant very quickly when I discussed the show with a fellow audience member during the intermission. He said he was enjoying the show but felt the historic "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was too important and meaningful a song to be used as a joke. To him, an older man who called me young lady at some point, the arrangement was in bad taste. To me, the arrangement was hilarious since the song is too histrionic and earnest to be openly enjoyed by someone in my generation. Between you and me, I do enjoy Judy Garland's seminal version but it just doesn't have the cultural significance for me that it does for past generations.
By the end of the show, however, I was back. "It's Us Again-Reprise" was sweet and endearing. And, even though I'm sure the two are doomed if they decide to stay together, what the hell, I'll clap for them. I'm just glad they finished out the show without a double homicide.
Stages' PETE N' KEELY is a dark comedy that hearkens back to a bygone era when men were gentlemen and women were ladies. A time when Billie Holiday wore impeccably designed silk dresses and garlands in her hair on the stage then exited to a life of heroin addiction, incarceration and abusive romantic relationships.
Those were the days.
PETE N' KEELY produced by Stages Repertory Theatre (3201 Allen Parkway) runs July 9 - August 31, 2014 on Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. This show is approximately 2 hours long including one fifteen-minute intermission. Tickets are $21 - $65. To purchase tickets call 713.527.0123 or visit www.stagestheatre.com.