It’s 1968. A year of war, assassinations and political controversy. And in a New York television studio, bitterly divorced singers Pete Bartel and Keely Stevens — once a hugely popular nightclub and recording duo but now struggling as solo artists — add to the year’s tumult with a live reunion show.
Will they drive each other crazy, or fall in love all over again? Or both? Tune in and find out.
That’s the premise of “Pete ‘n’ Keely,” a musical that the Paper Mill Playhouse is streaming, through May 1, as part of its 2020-21 virtual season. The season has already included the cabaret-style “Sing in a New Year!” and the revue “Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein,” but this is its first actual musical.
George Dvorsky and Sally Mayes, who co-starred when “Pete ‘n’ Keely” debuted off-Broadway in 2000, are reprising their roles, and original director Mark Waldrop is back in that capacity as well. The filming was done on the large Paper Mill Playhouse stage; Waldrop cleverly has the screen bordered by a television frame to make it look like you’re watching on TV for the scenes that are part of the TV special. When you’re watching things that weren’t broadcast but took place that night, the frame vanishes.
Pete and Keely are modeled on vocal duos such as Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and, to a lesser extent, Sonny and Cher. She’s a vocal dynamo; he’s the grinning, bland second banana. Their banter is slick and scripted and most of the material is old-fashioned and/or corny: A sincerely patriotic “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Pete’s ridiculous, preening take on the Peggy Lee hit, “Fever.” But their “But Beautiful” is sweet and affecting, and Keely pulls out all the stops, thrillingly, on her torch song showcase, “Black Coffee.”
Mixed in with the standards and show tunes is material co-written for the musical by Waldrop and Patrick Brady, including the very catchy “Have You Got a Lot to Learn” and a Christmas novelty tune, “Too Fat to Fit.”
Keely gets on Pete’s nerves early by stepping on his lines. And the fact that the TV show has an autobiographical theme — Pete and Keely perform their hits, and talk about their life and career together — gives them an golden opportunity to stray from the script and address past grievances. Keely, it turns out, did not want to start a family when Pete did. Pete slept around a lot. Keely drank to excess (and, Pete lets us know, that’s not water she’s drinking between numbers during the broadcast).
There are some funny lines sprinkled throughout. I laughed when the slogan of the show’s sponsor, Swell Shampoo, is revealed (“they put the ‘ooh’ in shampoo”) and when Keely undercuts Pete’s boast about the current state of his career by deadpanning, “Tell me, does it bother you when the audience eats during the performance, or do they wait till intermission?”
A three-piece band at the back of the stage (pianist and bandleader Jeffrey Lodin, bassist Jeffrey Carney and drummer Brian Brake) provides solid support; Lodin is given a character name, too (Del DeCosta), and has some lines. Despite Del’s unflagging musical ebullience, he’s clearly exasperated with the show’s two stars.
Unfortunately, book writer James Hindman isn’t able to build much genuine drama into a musical that’s basically an amusingly stale nightclub act and two narcissists trading snipes. And he also makes some odd choices. He adds a promising subplot about a record company executive showing interest in the reunited duo, for instance, but doesn’t follow through on it.
However flimsy the material, though, Mayes and Dvorsky fully commit to it, and succeed in transporting you back to another showbiz era. I’m just not sure I want, or need, ever to go back there again.
“Pete ‘n’ Keely” will be available for streaming at the Paper Mill Playhouse’s website, papermill.org, through May 1. Next up in the series will be “Beehive: The ’60s Musical,” on dates TBA.
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