"Pete 'n' Keely" a Rollercoaster Reunion

By Geary Danihy

Have you heard? Pete and Keely are back together again. Yes, America’s singing sweethearts, that delightful duo that sang its way into your hearts in the 50s and early 60s has been reunited for a one-night-only special on NBC (in the time slot normally reserved for “Bonanza.”)

Forget about all the rumors you’ve heard: the bad blood between the divorced couple, Keely’s drinking and Pete’s philandering. Forget about the headlines. Does news of the Tet Offensive have you down? The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobbie Kennedy got you depressed? Can’t believe that Jackie has married Aristotle Onassis? For one night, at least, you can set aside the world and all its woes as your favorite songbirds sing your cares away.

Well, that’s the premise anyway, and for the most part “Pete ‘n’ Keely,” a musical comedy by James Hindman that recently opened at MTC MainStage, delivers. Played for laughs (some of the jokes work, some don’t – often because of timing problems between the two leads), this lighthearted take on the reunion of the poor man’s Steve and Edie works best, oddly enough, when Pete (Tony Lawson) and Keely (Kristin Huffman) are performing songs specifically written by Patrick Brady and Mark Waldrop for the show. Perhaps this is because “The Cross Country Tour,” “Bernice, I Don’t Believe You” and the very witty “Tony ‘n’ Cleo” come with no predetermined expectations, no echoes of iconic performances. In other words, there’s nothing to measure the performances against so they are taken at face value.

Such is not the case with the American standards that the two sing as duets or solos. For those of a certain age, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme’s rendition of Steve Allen’s “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” is definitive – Pete and Keely’s version pales in comparison (for a couple who have supposedly been singing together for years, Lawson’s and Huffman’s voices often don’t seem to mesh very well.)

The same problem arises with numbers such as “Besame Mucho,” “Fever” (camped up a bit too much by Lawson), and “That’s All.” About the only time either of the leads takes a standard and puts a personal stamp on it is when Huffman does her rendition of “Black Coffee,” which has been sung by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Huffman starts out low and soft and builds up the song until it is a cri de coeur.

The show would have been better served if director Kevin Connors had toned down Lawson’s lounge lizard take on his role. There’s just a bit too much posing, eyebrow curling and self-satisfied smirking on Lawson’s part – his Pete comes off as a caricature of a caricature. Huffman, on the other hand, plays her role straight and thus gives Keely a believability (and a depth) that Pete lacks.

Part of the show’s appeal comes from the bickering and bantering between the two leads that is in full force during the TV special’s commercial breaks and bubbles beneath the surface when the two are on camera. Here timing is everything, and as already noted, the timing between the two is just a bit off. However, when the two click, the jabs and japes are quite humorous.

The show’s most entertaining moments are those that allow the two to humorously chronicle the couple’s career via numbers written specifically for the show. This is especially true of the song that closes the first act, “The Cross Country Tour,” a fast-paced pastiche of state- and city-themed songs that starts out in New England and ends up in California. Equally entertaining are the three numbers that open the second act, ostensibly taken from the disastrous Broadway show, “Tony ‘n’ Cleo” (a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”) that the couple starred in, and the duo’s rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As Keely notes in passing, Julia Ward Howe really knew how to write ‘em.

“Pete ‘n’ Keely” runs through Sunday, June 13. Perhaps during the short run the timing will tighten up a bit, but even if it doesn’t, there’s enough in the show to bring a smile to one’s lips, keep one’s toes tapping and provide just a soupcon of nostalgia. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.

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