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A tribute that does justice, daddy-o

Music of bandleader Louis Prima and singer Keely Smith, along with inventive choreography, makes an impressive show at PCPA.

July 30, 2004|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Las Vegas nightclub scene belonged to bandleader Louis Prima and his lead singer, Keely Smith. The swinging jump band sound they pioneered during their reign at the Sahara and Desert Inn casinos is overdue for resurgence, and "The Wildest!" -- a new high-octane musical tribute -- just might be the ticket.

Conceived by Prima and Smith's daughters, Luanne and Toni Elizabeth Prima, with director Randy Johnson (who produced "Always Patsy Cline") and choreographer Thomas Porras, the show makes a promising debut under the auspices of the Central Coast's PCPA Theaterfest.

The real-life story of how brash, flamboyant Prima revived a fading career through his professional and personal partnership with the cool, sophisticated (and 20 years younger) Smith would make a show unto itself, but biography is not the intent here. Instead, the focus is purely on their music, re-created amid period lounge settings by a dozen energetic young performers and a live six-piece band. And it smokes, daddy-o.

From the opening medley of "Sing, Sing, Sing" and "When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)," the show pulses with the signature sound Prima forged from the disparate styles that figured in his musical evolution -- the Dixieland jazz of his New Orleans roots, the Italiano-themed big band sound that brought him stardom in the 1940s and the sensual hard-driving rhythms he presciently tapped for his Vegas act before they became codified as rock 'n' roll.

The arrangements by Prima's young protege, Sam Butera, prove enduringly hip, and not in a nostalgic retro way. In concise, punchy tunes like "The Lip," sharp dynamics make the live horns effective lead instruments. For fans of latter-day popularizers such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a taste of the original Prima sound will be an eye and ear opener (the omission of Prima classic "Jump, Jive and Wail" from this 37-song anthology notwithstanding). The superb acoustics of PCPA's Santa Maria venue are better than the closer outdoor Solvang theater, where the show will move in August.

A key co-contributor to the fun is Porras' vigorous and endlessly inventive choreography, with its uncompromising hip-twisting, limb-flailing precision. Porras' ingenuity ranges from the whimsical (a hopeless square's attempt to be hep in "I Beeped When I Should Have Bopped") to daunting full-scale production numbers such as the feathered fan dance in "All or Nothing at All" or the frenetic, foot-stomping "I Wan'na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)."

Regrettably but understandably, no attempt is made to replicate Prima's inimitable singing style (Tony Bennett breeziness married to raspy Louis Armstrong exuberance) or Smith's silky vibrato; instead, vocals are divvied up among the performers, who represent various nightclub denizens.

Generally, songs of primal romance ("That Old Black Magic," "Embraceable You," "Hey Boy, Hey Girl") fare better than introspective blues numbers ("Autumn Leaves," "You Go to My Head"), which would benefit from more seasoned delivery.

*

'The Wildest!'

Where: Allan Hancock College Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria

When: 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays

Ends: Aug. 7

Price: $19.50 to $28.50

Contact: (805) 922-8313

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Also

Where: Solvang Festival Theatre, 420 2nd St., Solvang

When: Aug. 13 to 29

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