If the rollicking boogie king and swingin’ clown prince Louis Prima was a tough act to follow in his lifetime, imagine what it must be like to bring the musician back to life on stage in a way that pleases and amazes listeners. That’s exactly the challenge Anthony Crivello has tackled with “Louis & Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara,” which closed at the Royal George Theater on May 17. Presented by Hershey Felder, the production traces how Prima took unknown teenager Keely Smith and shaped her into a sassy stage foil via a two-week gig on the floor of the Sahara Hotel’s Casino in Las Vegas.
“It takes massive research to do a historical figure,” says Broadway actor Anthony Crivello, star of the Taylor Hackford’s award winning musical. “You read biographies and watch YouTube to access the real moves, attitude and persona — the history, the character — to build layers’ of factual representation, to build accent and dialogue.
Crivello, who lives in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, has an edge over other actors who might aspire to the role. Like Prima, he has Sicilian roots: all four of his grandparents hail from the same town in Sicily, Porticello, just south of Palermo on the Mediterranean Sea. Vocal talent also runs in his family, from his maternal grandfather, an Italian singer, to his father, an opera singer who performed at many weddings
“His humor is the humor I know from my family and I tap into that,” say Crivello, 59. “It’s slightly naughty Sicilian humor — broad, almost Borsch-belt. It’s the stuff I saw on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and it’s like my uncles and my father at Christmas and Holidays. They would tease each other, my aunts and my mother: all good natured, all fun, all loving.”
Trained as method actor and a member of The Actor’s Studio in New York, Crivello has some serious credentials. The Milwaukee native achieved prominence in 1993 as Valentin in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which he won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. He has also written several scripts, more than 20 songs, and knows Prima’s former turf as well, having played the title role in the Las Vegas production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” And for those who remember the classic TV series “Seinfeld,” Crivello had a recurring role as Maxwell the independent contractor.
“This is my 41st year professionally and my fifth production in Chicago,” Crivello says. For all his achievements and credentials, though, he retains a refreshing modesty as well as passion for his craft: “I try to never stop growing. I learn by watching other great performers as well as my students.
I lecture and sometimes teach, and those students teach me about me — what I know and don’t know.”
To be sure, students of the craft as exemplified in its most joyous form could learn a lot from watch Crivello’s transformation into Prima: a man who also had a pronounced shadow side. “It is a tour-de-force role: Pagliacci, the clown who is crying inside,” Crivello says. “I work to rise to that challenge every night, every show: 110 minutes of ‘balls to the walls.’ You have to do that to be true to Louis.”