The set-up: Once upon a time in American households, somewhere around the late '60s, everyone in the family watched the same TV programs. As there were only three major networks, choices were limited but the talent was vast.
The variety show, a child of vaudeville, was a staple during any evening. Singing, dancing, a comedy sketch or two, Senior Wences and his talking hand, tumblers and acrobats, maybe a scene from a recent Broadway hit - everything was thrown into the mix.
A singing duet was particularly fun, because it was rare. Usually a married couple - Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Xaviar Cugat and Abbe Lane (later replaced by much younger Charo) - they always seemed to be the epitome of showbiz glamor. The women were gowned in sequins and the men wore a tux. Nobody sweat. Elegant and sexy, the couples played off each other. Gentle ribbing was the patter. The audience would eavesdrop into this fabulous world of entertainment. All of them had worked their way up from nightclubs, hotel bars, or cabaret acts until they hit it big on television.
If you were seen on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater (in the prehistoric days), The Ed Sullivan Show, or Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, among more than two dozen other variety shows, you were instantly famous. Recording contracts, other gigs, and maybe a revue in Las Vegas or Atlantic City would follow. If you stayed married, or pretended you still were, and your taste in music matched the public's, a nice long career could be at hand.
The execution: Surely you haven't forgotten Pete Bartel (David Wald) and Keely Stevens (Susan Koozin)? You must remember "America's Swinging Sweethearts," Pete and Keely? 13 gold albums, played Carnegie Hall, made the circuit from Berle, Steve Allen, to Jack Paar. They opened for Joey Bishop in Vegas, don't you remember? They were everywhere, even on Broadway, briefly, very briefly, in the musical Tony 'n' Cleo. You've got to remember that. Maybe you still listen to their Christmas album, "On Thin Ice," and laugh along with "Too Fat To Fit," their comedy hit about Santa being so overweight he can't get down the chimney?
But what did you think about their nasty divorce? Keely's boozing? Pete's womanizing? Their unsuccessful solo careers after the messy breakup? Keely's latest recording attempt to get hip, "Keely a Go-Go"? Or Pete doing dinner theater in Ohio? Don't you wish you would have seen his Harold Hill in Music Man? I bet he was terrific.
Well, these two are back. And NBC has booked them for a one-hour live special - in living color! Oh, they're still divorced, but don't let that worry you. Don't believe those tabloids, they can be so vicious. They're getting along just fine.
See for yourself at Stages in Pete 'n' Keely, the off-Broadway musical by James Hindman (When Pigs Fly) that uses standards like "Lover Come Back to Me," "Fever," "Secret Love," and an unbelievable kitchy rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to showcase the story of their lives. Interspersed with the bio material are new numbers by Patrick Brady and Mark Waldrop, like the "Swell Shampoo Song" (NBC's sponsor - Swell Puts the OO in Shampoo) or the brilliantly silly Tony 'n' Cleo pastiche, a mishmash of Rogers & Hammerstein, Jerry Herman, and Steven Sondheim.
The best of the new bunch are the slow numbers, "Still" and "Wasn't It Fine," both heartfelt and amazingly effective. Koozin and Wald sit casually on the round platform that serves as the TV show's setting - and merely sing. The solos turn into duets, and the show's power shines through with classic simplicity. What's better than two pros singing their hearts out?
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And sing they do - wonderfully. We believe that Koozin and Wald were fabulous cabaret talents, because they really are. Their voices blend, each offsetting the other. Koozin is the belter, Wald the crooner. Their give and take is lovely to hear, and to behold, since each is such an exceptional actor. You can actually see them listen to each other when they bicker or when a fleeting moment of happiness passes across their face.
Although the lush orchestrations that were a hallmark of variety shows are missing, we willingly suspend our disbelief when the sextet, under the baton of Steven Jones, swings with such brassiness. Every now and then we glimpse the musicians when the upstage panels are pushed aside, and there they are with cigarettes dangling from their lips - a nice period touch.
Director Kenn McLaughlin overlays the studio background atmosphere with appropriate mood and steady pace, choreographer Krissy Richmond enhances the duet's routines with phrases that could have come from June Taylor's playbook; while Kevan Loney's projection designs sparkle, twirl, and kaleidoscope us back to the '60s. The real mood enhancer are the costumes by Katherine Snider. Channeling Bob Mackie with tasteful tackiness, Keely is awash in opulent paisley swirls, marabou-trimmed bell bottoms, or black sequins and opera gloves for her "Black Coffee" torch song, while Pete's sharkskin suit and red baize dinner jacket with ascot are primetime.
The verdict: Come back to '60s TV. No need to bat that clunky Philco to get rid of the static, for Stages has finely adjusted the horizontal and vertical. Gather the family, sit back, and enjoy these two stars having the time of their life - in swingin' color! Pete 'n' Keely runs through August 31 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Purchase tickets online at www.stagestheater.com or call 713-527-0123. $19-$43.