Pete 'n' Keely, the comic musical about a divorced "singing-sweethearts" couple reuniting for a TV special, opens Dec. 14 at Off-Broadway's John Houseman Theatre, where Sally Mayes and George Dvorsky have been co-starring — and co-sparring — in previews since Dec. 2.
Conceived by James Hindman, Mark Waldrop and Patrick Brady, and written by Hindman, the musical comedy puts cabaret star and Tony Award-nominated actress Mayes (Closer Than Ever, She Loves Me) in a fake "live TV' event where she sings and sneers at Dvorsky (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Paper Mill Playhouse's Anything Goes).
The show takes place in 1968, five years after the acrimonious divorce of a Steve-and-Eydie-Gorme-like singing couple, Pete Bartel and Keely Stevens. Song hits from the 1950s and 1960s, plus original tunes, punctuate the production, directed by Waldrop (When Pigs Fly, Bette Midler's recent concert tour) and choreographed by Keith Cromwell.
If the specialty tune "It's Us Again" sounds familiar, it's because Steve and Eydie sang it on one of their many albums.
The score of Pete 'n' Keely tells the story of the protagonists' careers and relationship. "The songs are mostly old standards," author Hindman told Playbill On-Line in February 2000. "Sort of like Forever Plaid. This couple are like Steve and Eydie, and they sing all these old swing tunes. But their emotions start bubbling up through the songs; a lot of things that were never said start coming to the surface in a comic way." Audiences can expect an eyeful from costume designer Bob Mackie ("The Carol Burnett Show," The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public). Mackie is expected to attend the Dec. 14 opening.
"What's so thrilling for me is to have ["Carol Burnett Show" designer] Bob Mackie doing the costumes," Mayes told Playbill On-Line in December 2000. "In all the readings we've done of this, they would go find some horrible vintage chiffon dress and a great big foofy wig and I looked like a sight gag. Well, now I look stunning, but it's still humorous."
Mayes is Keely Stevens and Dvorsky is Pete Bartel. On a TV variety special that reunites them and chronicles their lives together, they relive their showbiz career. The catch is, they haven't spoken since their big breakup at Caesar's Palace five years earlier. Keeping an eye on the pair is an unseen record producer who may wish for them to get back together. Everything's "live," so tension is high.
Among the musical numbers in the show are "Besame Mucho," Burke and Van Heusen's "But Beautiful," "Fever," Rodgers and Hart's "Lover," Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," and new tunes by Brady and Waldrop, including "Kid Stuff," "Tony & Cleo" (a trimmed version of a fake Broadway musical Pete and Keely starred in, based on Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra), "Too Fat to Fit," "Wasn't It Fine," "Have You Got a Lot to Learn," "Hello, Egypt!," and more.
One of the musical highlights is the dead-serious interpretation of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," complete with special effects created by stagehands who scamper onto the set. Previews audiences have been cheering the number.
Steven Asher, David W. Unger and Avalon Entertainment present the staging. Mayes and Dvorsky appeared in Pete 'n' Keely when it played its first full staging (after workshop readings) in Springfield, MA, in May 2000.
Ray Klausen (Waiting in the Wings) is scenic designer. Lighting design is by F. Mitchell Dana.
Waldrop previously directed a workshop of the show at CAP 21 in New York City in February 2000 and helmed the debut full staging April 25-May 14 at Springfield, MA's City Stage.
Mayes was nominated for a Tony Award for playing Ilona in the most recent Broadway revival of She Loves Me, and is remembered for introducing "Miss Byrd" in the Maltby and Shire revue, Closer Than Ever (the song pops up in her cabaret act still). She won a Theatre World Award for Cy Coleman's Welcome to the Club. Among her albums are "Our Private World: The Comden and Green Songbook," "The Dorothy Fields Songbook," "The Story Hour" and (her latest) "Boys and Girls Like You and Me."
Dvorsky recently appeared as Billy Crocker opposite Chita Rivera in Anything Goes at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
His Broadway credits include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Passion, Marilyn: An American Fable and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. His solo disc, "In the Still of the Night," is in stores.
Patrick S. Brady is Mayes' longtime cabaret collaborator, and contributes original music and serves as arranger and musical director. He recently served as musical director and conductor for Fosse.
Mayes told Playbill On-Line the show was not written for her, but when she came into it, it was shaped for her by Brady and the creative team. "You know what happened?" she said. "Patrick ...was the person they brought on board to do these arrangements. I think probably, in the back of his head, always, it was me he had in mind, because he knew I could do that kind of singing. Once they decided on me, Jim [Hindman] started molding it to me, and George [Dvorsky]. Patrick has been my musical director for, like, gosh, 10, 11 years, and we're great, dear friends as well. We can collaborate without even thinking about it. He knows my voice so well and knows what I can do and what he can push me to do. He knows the notes I can hit. He really knows how to arrange for my voice. His genius — which has not been fully recognized yet, but I'm hoping this show will bring it to light — is that he arranges with such a sense of humor. The things that he does are so funny in such a hip way. That's something that makes this show real special. All the stuff is very humorous, but it's not making fun of them, it's not commenting on them, it's done with a lot of love."
To view Playbill On-Line's Brief Encounter Q&A with Sally Mayes, click here.
Pete 'n' Keely tickets are $35-$55. The John Houseman Theatre is at 450 W. 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200. Visit the Pete 'n' Keely website at www.petenkeely.com.
— By Kenneth Jones