‘Pete ‘n’ Keely’ is a charming showmance that asks too much of its audience - The Buffalo News
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‘Pete ‘n’ Keely’ is a charming showmance that asks too much of its audience

Pete ’n’ Keely – the apostrophized “n” being significantly kitsch – are back. With a vengeance.

At this point, America’s former “swingin’ sweethearts” – Hollywood cousins to Steve and Eydie, and Sonny and Cher – already have wowed and wooed us with their romantic duets, witty banter and spectacular hair design.

But with their latest show, “Pete ’n’ Keely,” now at the Kavinoky under Joseph Demerly’s direction, we see the underbelly of the show business romance. Some showmances really stick, others stink.

The musical revue is fictional, as are our stars. The off-Broadway and regional hit is the brainchild of James Hindman, who has constructed a reunion for the near-faded stars, fresh off a divorce and in the midst of its emotional settlements.

In this show-within-a-show, we, the audience, are stand-ins for a live television audience for their latest special, the likes of which many in the Kavinoky’s seats might recognize. For those of us raised without the live variety show format, we’re treated to quite a delicacy – a real band (led handily by Michael Hake), spectacular costume changes, and stage design, by the seemingly perfect David King, that’s especially vivid in living color – and unabashed desire to charm.

Loraine O’Donnell returns in Keely’s shoes, having performed the same role at MusicalFare in 2002 alongside Brian Riggs. Here, she is joined by the estimable Norm Sham. I did not see O’Donnell’s last twirl of chiffon, though it’s easy to see how she would have been rightly cast then, and now, in this schticky, glad-handing, delicious role. Riggs, it’s easy to see, was similarly comfortable in Pete’s smarmy shoes.

Comparatively – and this is going on hunch only – Sham would seem less than easy to assume such a jerky role. Pete’s backhanded wisecracks to his once-darling Keely are bombs well dropped, and Sham basks in them beautifully. But as a general ringleader, he is far too humble and kind to match Pete’s glossy veneer.

This is one major trouble with the production, and I think it’s fair to say it does not entirely rest in Sham’s lap. He is more than capable in the role, and entertaining in his punchiest ways, but it does not feel like his role to begin with. O’Donnell’s tight grip on Keely’s passive-aggressive, show-must-go-on stage ethic is inarguable; she needs a Pete who can throw his proverbial punches back. Sonny, though diminutive to Cher’s statured coolness, could still throw it back without much effort.

The big loss is that we don’t feel for them. Their reunion feels less redemptive to us, because we do not know these fake characters. This is a trapping of this show’s faux nostalgia, which Hindman would seem to have created. Forced exposition is unavoidable, I suppose, and waxing nostalgia on things that in our memories never actually happened is fun to follow. But without some intense, divisive chemistry from which to compare those happier times, we don’t really care to pay attention. We’ve read the last page of the book by now, and can tell: the movie would have been better.

However, given the nature of their lighthearted act, where clichés are both born and go to die, there is still more than enough talent to charm our pants off. O’Donnell’s “Black Coffee” is delectably drippy, perfect for her husky alto (though O’Donnell also can wail to the ceiling when she needs to). Sham’s “Fever” is simple and cool, if just a little unexpected. Together, the two have a lot of fun.

Kevin Kennedy is dependably hospitable as our audience handler and sometimes third-wheeler. Kennedy doesn’t know how to do a bad job with these kinds of characters. It’s nice to have him aboard this uneven ride.

The top of the second act brings the best of the cast’s assets together, in the “Tony ’n’ Cleo” sequence, a reprise of Pete ’n’ Keely’s Broadway reinvention of Anthony and Cleopatra. This number boasts all the bawdiness and ridiculousness of such a concept, and Sham and O’Donnell lead the company in a riotous, extended production number. It works not only because of their obvious adeptness but because of the absurdity of this kind of entertainment.

It made me wish for more of the same, and if possible, less of the work to get there. Our show is their business, but this time around, we had to pull too much of the weight.

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