Theater Review - Happy reunion

Pete ‘n’ Keely delights with spoof of TV variety shows

Aurora Theatre’s musical Pete ‘n’ Keely fondly recalls a tacky form of entertainment that’s gradually fading from our cultural memory: the TV variety show. Today, if you imagine a campy crooner on a glitzy soundstage, you’re bound to envision American idols. A generation ago, though, you’d think of America’s sweethearts, like the wholesome siblings Donny and Marie, or combative couple Sonny and Cher.

James Hindman’s musical especially treasures its recollections of Sonny and Cher’s off-camera divorce and the tension it brought to their weekly series. Pete ‘n’ Keely depicts a fictitious but similarly split-up couple as they sing tunes and sling insults on an NBC reunion special in 1968.

Following the introduction by Winslow Thomas’ unctuous announcer, Pete ‘n’ Keely (Alan Kilpatrick and Kathleen McManus) take the stage with their signature tune, “It’s Us Again.” Their entrance establishes costume designer Emily Gill as one of the play’s stars behind the scenes: Pete wears a shiny pink tux jacket over a shirt with a multitude of ruffles, while Keely’s pink dress sports an oversized butterfly pattern and feathery fringe.

Between numbers, the duo recounts the highs and lows of their marriage, a relationship dictated by the charts, not their hearts. They met singing a duet for Milton Berle, got engaged on “The Steve Allen Show” and got married on “The Jack Paar Show.” Keely proved as much a workaholic as an alcoholic, while Pete wanted to take time to raise a family, despite his wandering eye for younger women. When they put aside their bitter banter to recall their first house, Kilpatrick and McManus touchingly indicate the couple’s former affection.

Mostly, however, they lock horns. Both actors excel at imitating showbiz phonies, plastering oversized grins across their faces. During the commercial breaks of the live broadcasts, their masks come down, and while Pete all but drips in nervous-flop sweat, Keely seethes with rage. Both emotions reach a crescendo when she abandons him onstage during a duet.

Pete ‘n’ Keely captures both the vapid content and overwrought form of variety shows with more kitschy precision than even Dad’s Garage’s Chick & Boozy holiday specials. The song “Daddy” presents Keely as a precocious farm girl, while “Have You Got a Lot to Learn” takes place in a classroom. Act One ends with the couple’s “U.S.A.” medley, which strains to sample everything from “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” to “Gary, Indiana” to “Hooray for Hollywood.”

At times, director Jessica Phelps West raises the level of camp to hilarious heights, particularly in a jazzed-up version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The leads fill the number with preposterous flourishes, from McManus marching in place to Kilpatrick’s final gesture — he begins to salute but instead slicks back his hair.

Kilpatrick found even bigger laughs with his deluded Casanova version of “Fever.” Snapping his fingers and wearing an open shirt with a gold scorpion around his neck, he resembled Michael Imperioli’s sleezy uncle on “The Sopranos.”

Although Pete ‘n’ Keely includes several standards, it primarily features forgettable originals with music by Patrick Brady and lyrics by Mark Waldrop. “Sincere” tunes like “Wasn’t It Fine” lack a crucial spark, and McManus’ and Kilpatrick’s voices don’t have the power for Pete ‘n’ Keely to play it straight.

Fortunately, the Aurora production seldom takes the music that seriously. As a frivolous, frothy diversion, Pete ‘n’ Keely thrives in its comic moments.