Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
What do you think of when you hear the name Louis Prima?
Maybe it’s Las Vegas, where he reigned supreme in casino lounges for decades. Maybe it’s seeing footage of him, Keely Smith and Sam Butera on Ed Sullivan with “That Old Black Magic” or those Italian novelty songs. Your grandparents may remember his big band years as an early “King of Swing.” If you’re of a certain age, it’s as King Louie in Disney’s “Jungle Book” or, even later, the Gap commercials that used his music to very effectively sell pants.
No matter how you answer, “Jump, Jive and Wail: The Music of Louis Prima,” now playing at the National World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen, has the song for it.
And what a song it is, whether jazz, swing or early rock and roll – complete with that wailing saxophone, up tempo beat, banter with the band, “girl singer,” and even Prima himself, though in this case he’s on the piano and not the trumpet.
Pianist/bandleader/singer Tom Hook is Prima personified, though he’s not doing an impersonation as much as he’s capturing the spirit. His smile is infectious, his piano playing top-notch, and after a couple of songs, he really does sound like the music legend. Hook, who describes Prima as his longtime idol, had help from Prima’s widow Gia Maione and daughter Lena Prima in crafting this tribute, and it’s obvious to see why they signed off on it.
He and museum entertainment director Victoria Reed are the two people behind this new stage show, which mixes all the music you’re hoping to hear (from “When You’re Smiling” and “Just a Gigolo” to “Buona Sera” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) with tidbits about the native New Orleanian’s life, career and musical impact that you may not have known.
For example, did you know he co-wrote “A Sunday Kind of Love,” the song later made famous by Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and more recently Reba McEntire? Do you know how the Witnesses – the band led by Sam Butera, a leading architect of Prima’s Las Vegas sound – got their name? And did you ever consider the irony that Prima made Italian songs like “Angelina,” “Che La Luna” and “Josephina” popular in the U.S. during World War II, when the Italians were among our enemies?
Helping to tell the story through words and song, New Orleans native Cristina Perez is the very capable “girl singer” of this act, first as a big band performer in Prima’s early days (with his “New Orleans Gang”), then as Keely Smith, the 17-year-old Virginia girl who later became Mrs. Louis Prima and huge co-star.
Again, Perez isn’t imitating as much as she’s embodying Keely. It may look odd to some in the audience, but Perez nails the deadpan act that Smith popularized on stage with the wild and crazy Louis (a look that Cher later adopted in the 1970s with Sonny Bono).
Later, Perez plays Prima’s fifth and final wife, Gia Maione, who, as the story goes, had listened to his music all her life, knew all his songs and quickly landed the job as singer with his band when he was looking to replace Keely after their divorce. As Gia, Perez even pulls off her famous, breathless rendition of “I Want You to Be My Baby.” Gia, by the way, is also known as the mother of Louis Prima Jr. (who tours the country with his band performing his dad’s music, including at Gretna Fest last weekend) and Lena Prima, who has moved back to New Orleans and performs regularly at the Hotel Monteleone.
The musicians in this show have two roles – first, to deliver on the music and secondly, to be singers and comedians, including the call and response patter that Prima popularized. Eric Bernhardt pulls it off as Sam Butera on saxophone, bringing laughs and emulating the New Orleans-born Butera on his starring number “There’ll Be No Next Time” and “Oh Marie,” where we realize Sam (here it’s Eric), to Louis’ chagrin, can’t play in Italian.
Geoff Clapp keeps things swinging with the wild drum beats that we are told Butera introduced to Prima’s act (which Jimmy Vincent, Paul Ferrara and other Prima drummers made famous). David Phy (trombone), Pete Roze’ (bass) and New Orleans native Adam Bock (guitar) are equally capable. Jay Hagen on trumpet is, like Prima, a master performer when it comes to “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the classic song that Prima wrote, which became one of his anthems.
Adding some of the swinging feel to the show are dancers Chance Bushman and Lisa Casper, who swing out and make frequent costume changes to accompany the varied musical lineup, which keeps them on their toes the entire time.
Speaking of toes, it’s hard to keep your own from tapping during this show. Anyone who’s heard Prima’s music knows why. And if you’re a fan, it’s even better to hear it performed live by this group, who obviously love the music and want to honor it by playing pretty for the people, as Louis so famously did. Extra applause for the World War II Museum, for paying tribute to him and his music with this new, local production that shines a spotlight on the King of Swing once again.
"Jump, Jive and Wail: The Music of Louis Prima" is playing weekends through Nov. 24 at the Stage Door Canteen in the National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St. Show times (including dinner or brunch from Chef John Besh's American Sector restaurant) are Friday & Saturday, 6 p.m. dinner seating, 8 p.m. show; Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. with 1 p.m. show. Tickets are $60 for Friday/Saturday dinner & show, $30 for show only; $55 for Sunday brunch & show. Call 504-528-1943 or click here for information.