The Café Carlyle
35 East 76th Street
Through April 28
The first time I saw and heard Keely Smith, I was a college freshman on summer vacation, visiting Las Vegas for the first time. In those days, you could walk down the Strip, lit by casino kliegs bright enough to match the lights of Paris, and ogle marquees advertising Marlene Dietrich, Noël Coward, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and the entire Count Basie Orchestra. On your way through the bar into the showroom, you could see June Christy, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole and the entire Count Basie band, all performing free! No lounge act was hotter than Keely Smith and her wailing husband, Louis Prima. Things have changed, I’m sorry to say, and we’re not in Nevada any more. The hotel lounges are gone, the legendary acts have been replaced by the screeching nasality of Celine Dion, the keyword is “tacky”, and you’re lucky if you can catch 16 drunk Texans doing the two-step. But Keely Smith is time-resistant. She still ticks like a Rolex.
Now, in her annual New York pilgrimage, Keely Smith has moved farther uptown from Feinstein’s at the Regency to the Café Carlyle. From where I sat on opening night, this has been a bad idea. I don’t know why this room seems to have changed so much since Bobby Short owned the joint lock, stock and piano bench, but the sound is so muffled and flat that if you aren’t sitting under Ms. Keely’s nose, you can’t hear a thing over the noise of her seven-piece band. I was seated so far away that I could have hailed a taxi without leaving my chair. Tone down the brass and you can sometimes make out the lyrics, but you have to strain. She sounds like she’s coming from another room a block away. There is definitely something wrong with the stereo separation (or lack thereof) when “Let the Good Times Roll” could be mistaken for chamber music. Never mind. She’s back, and so are the rocking jive tunes like “Jump, Jive and Wail” she used to sing with Louis Prima—backed by Sam Butera and the Witnesses—when Keely and Louis were Vegas’ royal couple in the 50’s and 60’s. The material is, with only a couple of exceptions, the same stuff she sang 50 years ago. The arrangements are back, too; even some of the same raunchy patter—the same Buster Brown bangs, the same Virginia accent. (“You go ta mah he-yud … like the bubba in a glassa champainn …. ) Who knew the words “head” and “heart” had two syllables and two vowels? Expect the same easy style, the same durable pipes, and you won’t be disappointed. This is as it should be. In a world of incompetence and inconsistency, there is something to be said for reliability. Despite the muddy sound of faulty microphones, the band honks away, conducted by her musical director, Dennis Michaels, who is also her son-in-law. When things quiet down and he provides her with thoughtful chords, he also proves he’s an accomplished pianist. On such rare occasions, I found myself grateful for ballads. Grateful, too, for any time spent with Keely Smith. For longevity, she passes the white-glove test.