December 31, 2009

An Evening With Lucille Ball


By WALT BELCHER | The Tampa Tribune

Suzanne LaRusch, the foremost Lucille Ball impressionist in the country, teamed up with Lucille Ball's daughter, Lucie Arnaz, to create this production, running through January 17 at the Straz Center in Tampa, Florida.

Suzanne LaRusch was playing Lucy Ricardo long before she started performing as Lucille Ball.

"The two are very different — one is the actress, the other is her most famous character," LaRusch said.

She portrays both in "An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You For Asking," which opens in Tampa on Tuesday.

Lucy Ricardo was the scatterbrained, slapstick character created by Ball in the long-running "I Love Lucy" series.

Her Lucy was a star-struck, stay-at-home wife of temperamental Cuban band leader Ricky Ricardo, played by Ball's real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.

In LaRusch's one-woman show, she portrays Ball as she was in the 1970s, giving a question-and-answer session about her life and career.

"In flashbacks, I also become the Lucy character and take people behind the scenes of some of the classic sketches such as the Vitameatavegamin commercial, the grape-stomping episode and others," LaRusch said in a telephone interview.

"It's not meant to be a parody and I'm not doing just a Lucy impression," she added. "It's a touching insightful look at Lucille Ball that includes some of her personal memories and observations that have never been shared before."

That's because the production is co-written, co-produced and directed by Ball's daughter, Lucie Arnaz, who will be at the performances on Jan. 14, 15 and 16.

The play is being staged in the intimate Jaeb Theater at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts through Jan. 17.

Lucie Arnaz will talk with the audience after those performances. "She has been very hands on with this and has added so much to the show with things I never knew about her mother," said LaRusch, who has been performing various "Lucy" shows since the 1990s.

As the foremost Lucille Ball impressionist in the country, LaRusch teamed up with Lucie Arnaz in 2006 to create this production which opened in April 2009 at Desi Arnaz Jr.'s theater in Boulder City, Nev.

This is only the second run of the play that LaRusch hopes to one day take to Broadway.

A former child actor, LaRusch grew up near Hollywood and was portraying several famous people (Marylyn Monroe, Mae West, Betty Boop) for Universal Studios in 1991 when her impression of Lucy began to impress everyone.

"I didn't notice the facial resemblance myself before I dressed as Lucy," she said. "I have straight blond hair. But I always thought my mother was a dead ringer for Lucy."

Ball was a movie actress in the 1930s and 1940s. She was in her late 30s when she became one of television's biggest stars in the 1950s. She died in 1989.

For almost two decades LaRusch has been authorized by Lucie and Desi Jr. to portray their mother. She has appeared at numerous public events, performed for presidents and even sold "I Love Lucy" products on the Home Shopping Network. She was a runner-up on the ABC reality show "The Next Best Thing," the search to find the best celebrity impressionist.

She starred as Lucille Ball in many productions, including the 50th anniversary performance of the radio show "My Favorite Husband," the radio program that inspired "I Love Lucy."

"I enjoy playing her and think this is a good way to honor her life and career," she said.

THEATER PREVIEW
'An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You For Asking'

WHEN: Tuesday through Jan. 17

WHERE: Jaeb Theater, David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts

HOW MUCH: Regularly priced tickets start at $36.50.

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