Hop on Pop

Crooners Pete 'n' Keely get fake 'n' flabby at Kalliope.

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Pete 'n' Keely Kalliope Stage, 2134 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights Through August 8, 216-321-0870
The Pete and Keely Reunion Special flies - mostly without a laugh track.
The Pete and Keely Reunion Special flies mostly without a laugh track.
Celebrity pairings are endlessly fascinating to those of us who buy our socks off the sale table at Target. Whether we're tracking monumental misfits like gorgeous Julia Roberts and her former, inexplicable attraction to country twanger Lyle Lovett, or we're delightedly watching the slow-motion collision of Ben and J-Lo's inflated egos, there's a fascination that's hard to ignore.

That's probably why James Hindman assembled a theatrical pastiche around two fictional pop singers who fall in and out of love with each other faster than they change pinky rings. As sporty confections go, Pete 'n' Keely is a promising work, focusing on "America's Singing Sweethearts," a Steve & Eydie-like pop duo who are reuniting on a live 1968 TV show. This setup puts many potentially humorous elements into play, including the unintended gaffes of a real-time broadcast. But due to a lack of authenticity and attention to detail (except for some fabulous costumes by Kim Brown), this effort by the usually adept Kalliope Stage group disappoints both musically and comically.

Pete Bartell and Keely Stevens are a gracefully aging singing act known for crooning sweet love songs, even while battling their own relationship demons: He's a letch, she's a lush. After a couple decades appearing in clubs across the country, recording a dozen best-selling albums, and performing on the biggest TV venues (they were married on The Jack Paar Show), the songbirds broke up. But now they're back together in front of the unblinking eye of live TV -- and the sparks are ready to fly, right? Well, don't put on your safety goggles just yet.

The Pete and Keely Reunion Special, as the TV show is titled, revisits Keely's early years singing "Daddy" à la Baby Snooks, then her meeting with Pete and their impromptu audition before Milton Berle. Since the script never steps outside of the TV-show format, the two characters remain showbiz stereotypes devoid of any personal depth. As a result, it's impossible to develop any fondness for either, since even their personal failings are glossed over. Pete's wandering eye apparently never goes beyond playful flirting, and Keely's inebriation comes and goes without explanation.

One of the major disconnects is that neither Hindman's words nor Paul F. Gurgol's direction adequately captures the electrifying intensity of doing TV without the luxury of tape editing and re-dos. It's a high-wire dynamic that could make every moment of this show-within-a-show compelling, not to mention hysterically funny. Instead, both Pete and Keely fire jabs and glares at one another, over the airwaves, in a way they'd never do -- after all, each desperately wants to revive a fading career. The humor should arise out of the two singers' struggle not to show their contempt for each other. This problem is exacerbated by Gurgol's laissez-faire approach, allowing his seasoned actors to indulge in easy, repetitive shtick such as Pete's smarmy, cuff-fiddling, lounge-lizard mannerisms.

Of course, these shortcomings could largely be overcome by a memorable performance of the music. The score is studded with pop standards such as "Besame Mucho," "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," and "Lover," with additional (and ho-hum) original tunes penned by Patrick Brady and Mark Waldrop. But in almost all cases, the singing, under the musical direction of Joan Ellison, is only serviceable. The performers, Christopher Vettel and Kathryn Kendall, each have undeniable vocal strengths, but their singing never blends as it would with such a supposedly successful team. In fact, their duets seem like they were recorded in separate rooms with no audio feed -- they sing simultaneously but never really together. The solos, however, are a bit better, with Kendall's stirring rendition of "Black Coffee" a jolting moment of genuine emotion that makes the rest of the proceedings pale by comparison.

Ultimately, Pete 'n' Keely sags because the two performers don't develop the knowing, cynical, edgy relationship this play requires. Presented with an imperfect but workable vehicle, Vettel and Kendall spend a lot of time posing in front of it and polishing its fenders -- but they never climb inside and take it for a reckless joyride. One telling example is act one's closing number, a cross-country medley composed of melodic snatches referencing locales the pair had visited. This potential show-stopping tour comes off more as a forced march, with each singer dutifully executing bland choreography instead of relishing the tuneful journey.

While each actor has a few sparkling laughs (Pete advises Keely, in an acidic non sequitur, that "Saying all my lines isn't going to make you look any thinner!"), the right chemistry never bubbles up between them. And that leaves this vehicle up on blocks.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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