Deliver marital tension, fast-paced banter, vocal assurance, knowing self-mockery and jaw-dropping harmonies -- then wrap it all up in a funny, sentimental, appealing musical. In Pete 'n' Keely, Curt Olds and Abbey Crawford are transcending boundaries of age and musical taste (at Actors Repertory Theatre through April 19).
Director Michael Weaver's rendition of this off-Broadway hit is forever teetering on the edge of campiness and forever pulling back from the precipice. Musically, the show's greatest instance of variety is the first-act curtain number, a musical travelogue that hits about 14 key changes en route to mentioning all 50 states. But emotionally as well, this show is filled with sudden tonal changes and plenty of variety.
Consider, for example, Crawford's transition from the campiness of her half of "Besame Mucho" (sporting a fake mustache and butting in on Pete's singing-waiter gig) to her sincere feeling in the signature love duet "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" and then back to overdoing the hot-and-heavy routine toward the end of that same song. Pete 'n' Keely succeeds (both in James Hindman's book of the musical and in this production) because of a willingness to visit idealized and cynical extremes: Yes, these are beautiful love songs, full of feeling. And yes, these two characters onstage are full of anger and resentment -- directed squarely at one another.
The fictional setup is that a couple of once-married singers have agreed to appear for one night on a last-gasp TV special meant to resuscitate their careers -- five years after they'd gotten divorced.
Along with Pete and Keely's fictional biographies, we get 22 musical numbers -- all of them well-played by Carolyn Jess's snazzy trio and a half-dozen of them sung in truly exceptional ways. In "(You Give Me) Fever," Olds lasers in on an embarrassed front-row female playgoer -- all thrusting hips and sashaying butt, his floral-print shirt unbuttoned down to here, his lips pursed with put-on desire. And then he ends the torch song by lighting his own fire: The gymnastics he does with that barstool are illegal in most states.
There are other highlights as well: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" gets jazzed up with harmonizing that clicks over into upstaging and marital squabbling -- resentment amid the patriotism. For her solo shot after Olds's sultry "Fever," Crawford has the less showy, more bluesy "Black Coffee." But when she belts out that line about "feelin' lower than the ground," you feel her lonesomeness in your bones. Finally, "That's All" concludes the show with genuine sentiment.
Of the pair, Olds is slightly the better comic actor, Crawford slightly the better singer, but it's really a tossup. Olds -- perky with a head tilt -- lets his wrists droop while executing his hep-cat hip-swivels. He sinks to his knees in rage and lets his grimace-grins show his resentment.
Costumer Jessica Ray provides gowns -- rose-colored frills to pistachio-green chiffon, baby-doll flounce to low-cut black lace -- that give Keely the look of a woman whose elegance is passing her by. Pete's tuxes, meanwhile, range from tasteful to lounge lizard.
The show has its drawbacks, naturally. The "Tony 'n' Cleo" spoof of poor taste in musicals descended mostly into silliness. Both performers displayed some sporadic problems with breathing and projection. The conclusion, which comes out of nowhere, feels manipulated.
But these are small blemishes on a delightful show. By appealing to young and old, idealistic and jaded, Pete 'n' Keely exemplifies what they used to call real entertainment. In demonstrating their talent, Crawford and Olds remind us that our era doesn't have a monopoly on irony any more than the Sixties' swingin' sweethearts were the only ones who could appreciate a pretty love song. Whatever your musical tastes or capacity for sentimental love-displays, Weaver's production of Pete 'n' Keely will make you smile.