note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Pete Bartel … Christopher Chew
Keely Stevens … Kathy St. George
Matt Ambrose … bass
Arthur Bakopolous … reeds
Mick Lewander … percussion
Sheldon Ross … trumpet
Robb Simring … bass
Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a race of men and women with names like Frankie and Dino and Sammy and Tony and Wayne and Engelbert and Steve and Edie and Mitzi and Ann-Margaret, whose second skins were tuxedos or sequins, who sang and spoke in Lounge, and who could be sighted somewhere between Las Vegas and the Catskills. Many of them were captured and displayed on television in big, lavish variety shows --- often in the summer; always after dark. They were Entertainers -- a nearly-extinct race that evolved out of Hollywood, nightclubs and recording studios and were eclipsed by younger generations, music and trends. If you wish to relive that glitzy era or to see what your ancestors deemed “entertainment”, you’ll find it in full flower in Stoneham Theatre’s wonderful production of PETE ‘N’ KEELY.
It’s the late 1960s, and we are the NBC studio audience (flashing APPLAUSE signs will tell us when to clap). “Bonanza” will return next week in order to bring you the televised reunion of Pete Bartel and Keely Stevens, America’s singing sweethearts. Once wildly popular, now divorced and having gone their separate ways, Pete and Keely have banded together again to revive their flagging solo careers. Alternating standards with banter, Pete and Keely tell of their rise and fall, punctuated with announcements from their sponsor, Swell Shampoo. However, it soon becomes apparent that all is not as cheery as it seems: Pete is a womanizer; Keely is a lush. Pete wanted a family; Keely wanted a career. The cattiness that erupts between airplays spills into the broadcast itself; happily, James Hindman’s scenario only wants to tweak, not smash, and Pete and Keely become that familiar staple: the theatre couple, alternately charming and childish, who cannot live together yet cannot live apart.
PETE ‘N’ KEELY is a vehicle, which means everyone involved must be at the top of his or her form since their talents must flesh out the slight material; here, the Stoneham team is working from the top drawer: director/choreographer Robert Jay Cronin is adept at doling out various kinds of cheese (the audience is ever poised between snickers and nostalgic sighs); Daniel Bilodeau has cleverly scaled down the Stoneham stage to provide backstage glimpses that counterpoint with “onstage” reality and Gail Astrid Buckley’s deliberately tacky costumes triumph by having been designed in complete poker face (they would have been all the rage, 30-odd years ago). The live band plays like a lounge lizard’s dream….
Pete and Keely are two tricky roles: their creators must be accomplished singers themselves, comfortable with all kinds of songs (save grand opera), and be believable as a long-term act. Relax: Christopher Chew and Kathy St. George play the battling pair and have never been better. Mr. Hindman has the repartee flying fast and thick (neither singer dominates) and Mr. Chew and Ms. St. George support each other with breathtaking ease --- they know each other’s skins, so to speak. Mr. Chew --- his hair frozen in a permanent tidal wave --- is dashing enough to be handsome and pushes the envelope far enough to be pompous without becoming obnoxious (Mr. Chew has cornered the market on has-beens and losers; his smiling Pete is a hollow fellow beneath the raging hormones). Mr. Chew has the more powerful singing voice but pint-sized Kathy St. George matches him with her most energetic performance yet (whatever she has for breakfast could send a rocket to the moon). I dubbed Ms. St. George ‘Rosalind Rustle’ when she appeared in RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL (where she gave a stunning glimpse of the Garland waiting to be freed); her Keely is cut from the same bustling cloth but bolstered with pockets of poignancy that could prove to be her true strength --- her quiet, relaxed “Black Coffee” is one to keep you company in the soul’s early morning hours. Mr. Chew and Ms. St. George prove in this, the post-Sondheim age, that old material still works and works well --- it might even seem “new” again.