Todd Hart, executive producer of Theatre Arlington, didn’t have to do much prep work for directing and co-starring in Pete ’n’ Keely, the biting Off-Broadway musical comedy about a pair of a middle-aged entertainers whose already strained relationship disintegrates further during a live 1968 TV special. As a kid in the early ’70s, Hart absorbed many hours of schlocky variety shows.
“My grandparents were big fans of Steve [Lawrence] and Eydie [Gormé],” he said. “We watched all the great entertainers –– Sonny and Cher, Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson. There were only three channels back then, so we were glued to whatever was on.”
The title characters of James Hindman’s show are very much in the vein of what Hart calls the “grande dame” personalities of that era, though their glory days are behind them. Pete (Hart) and ex-wife Keely (Jenny Thurman) are so desperate to make career comebacks that they’ve agreed to do a primetime network reunion show despite, basically, hating each other’s guts. Their successful run as a beloved married singing duo hit the skids a few years earlier after a brief, disastrous Broadway run in Antony and Cleopatra, though their relationship was already plagued by problems. Pete was a philanderer, Keely was a drinker, and all the resentments and recriminations surface on live national television. Between the desperate sniping, Hart and Thurman –– accomplished and versatile singers themselves –– get to perform everything from Peggy Lee’s “Fever” to “Black Coffee” to a romantic duet arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with an onstage trio of crack musicians. The current Theatre Arlington production has earned raves for both performers.
Hart has wanted to do Pete ’n’ Keely ever since he heard the recording by the original off-Broadway cast about nine years ago. The score, which also includes original tunes by Patrick Brady and Mark Waldrop, impressed him both for its elements of parody and its musical integrity. When he finally became executive producer of Theatre Arlington almost three years ago, he only wanted to stage it if his longtime friend and occasional co-star Thurman was available. A spot opened for both of them this season. Ironically, the pair’s familiarity with each other proved to be a bit of an impediment.
“We probably laughed 60 percent of the time [during rehearsals],” he said. “And then we realized that we’d have to kiss onstage. It was like kissing my sister. But we knew the audience was supposed to find the comedy [in the show’s situation]. We had a short timeframe to explain these people’s lives so that the audience would either love us or hate us. So far, they seem to be buying it.”
One of the biggest problems Hart encountered was in makeup. Onstage he said he sweats a lot, so the big fake moustache they began rehearsals with kept getting damp and falling off. Ultimately he had to grow his own mustache –– something that proved more formidable than he expected, since he discovered what he describes as a bald spot on his upper lip. Ric Dreumont Leal’s inspired costumes came together much more easily. (Bob Mackie designed the outfits for the original New York production.) Somewhere, Leal managed to find a rust-colored polyester double-knit leisure suit that fit Hart like a glove. Thurman was graced with an orange, yellow, and green swirl dress with a pink overlay. The sartorial horrors of 1968 are alive and well in this show.
Pete ’n’ Keely marks another victory for Hart as both executive producer and actor at Theatre Arlington. There’s a general perception that the 39-year-old theater has enjoyed a notable uptick in the quality of its stagings since he took the top spot in summer 2009. And Hart the performer has distinguished himself with highly praised work in shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone (at Theatre Three in Dallas), and now Pete ’n’ Keely. Hart says that if the theater is indeed doing some of its best work ever right now, credit should go to the organization’s relationship with performers.
“Theatre Arlington has a reputation for treating actors well,” he said. “We have to, because we can’t pay them well. We hire directors that actors want to work with. We try to pick scripts that make actors say, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that show.’ I will always push for more and better with all of our shows.”
Pete ’n’ Keely
Thru April 22 at Theatre Arlington, 305 W Main St, Arlington. $22.