Review: `Pete ‘n’ Keely’

Opened Sept. 13 at California Conservatory Theatre

Swingin’ sweethearts jazz up tuneful Pete ‘n’ Keely
three stars Cute kitsch

If the names Steve and Eydie mean anything to you, keep reading. If not, go watch High School Musical again.

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme are, in my humble opinion, fantastic. Together and alone they’re great singers (few female vocalists have Gorme’s bravura belt), and the fact their husband-and-wife team — complete with dusty marriage jokes and corny banter — is still going strong (they have concerts booked through next March) only attests to their timeless appeal.

The comic musical revue Pete ‘n’ Keely is, in many ways, a tribute to Steve and Eydie. Like their real-life counterparts Pete Bartel and Keely Stevens made it big in the 1950s as a husband-and-wife singing duo whose mainstream popularity faltered in the late ’60s.

But unlike Steve ‘n’ Eydie, Pete ‘n’ Keely are divorced and attempting a comeback with a live NBC reunion special.

That’s the premise for the aptly named Pete ‘n’ Keely, which makes its Northern California debut at San Leandro’s California Conservatory Theatre.

This is an in-between kind of a show. It’s part musical revue, with well-known songs like “Fever” and “Lover Come Back to Me” bumping up against new material by Patrick Brady (music) and Mark Waldrop (lyrics). And it’s part book musical, which means writer James Hindman is attempting to tell a story.

The musical revue part works best, at least it does in director Michael Ryken’s CCT production.

Diana Torres Koss as Keely has an admirable set of pipes — even Eydie Gorme might sit up and take note, which is saying something. She makes singing seem effortless, and she has no problem being heard over the three-piece “NBC Orchestra” (Tania Johnson, keyboardist/musical director; Taylor Still, drums; Travis Kindred, bass).

Ron Pickett as Pete isn’t quite as successful making himself heard all the time, but when he kicks his bright tenor into gear, his pure tones are more than audible.

Given that most of this nearly two-hour show is music, there’s a whole lot to enjoy.

The idea is that it’s 1968, and we’re the studio audience as Pete and Keely go live in attempt to revitalize their careers. After 12 years of marriage, cross-country tours and a Broadway show, their almost inevitable divorce pretty much killed their careers.

Keely’s latest album, “Keely a-Go-Go,” is being given away as a promo for Swell shampoo (“They put the oooh in shampoo”), and Pete’s performances in dinner theater musicals are getting him nowhere.

Hoping to rekindle the magic, an aging Pete and Keely hit the airwaves with their theme song, the catchy “It’s Us Again,” and take us on a journey through their lives together.
We see Keely as a child performer (“Daddy”); we see how Pete and Keely met in an Italian restaurant (“Besame Mucho”); and we see how they made a splash on the “Milton Berle Texaco Star Theatre” (a pure camp “Battle Hymn of the Republic”).

Along the way we get one-liners like this from Pete: “Those 12 years together were three of the happiest years of my life.” Or this from Keely: “Age is a number, and mine is unlisted.”

Most of the show consists of duets, with some — a sweet “Secret Love” the oh-so Steve and Eydie-esque “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” — recalling the kitschy enjoyment of great old variety shows. Curiously the solos, “Fever” for Pete, “Black Coffee” for Keely, aren’t nearly as interesting.

The medley from the (fictional) flop Broadway musical Tony ‘n’ Cleo, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” is truly awful — by design, though not as funny as it should be.

When the show attempts to get serious, with Keely depicted as a lush and Pete as a philanderer, the show loses steam. Their fight during the song “Love,” during which they scream, of course, how much they hate each other, is a low point.

The happy ending is forced, and the believability factor that we’re watching a live television broadcast flies right out the window.

But when Pete ‘n’ Keely is swingin’, which it is much of the time, it’s a real ring-a-ding time. But Steve and Eydie have nothing to worry about.

For information about Pete ‘n’ Keely, call 510-632-8850 or visit

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