September 14, 2012

‘I Love Lucy’ in live musical comedy tribute on stage

As written by Hedy Weiss for the Chicago Sun Times:

Sirena Irwin stars as Lucy and Bill Mendieta plays
Ricky Ricardo in "I Love Lucy Live on Stage", 
Photo by Ed Krieger
No doubt many still remember watching the original 181 black-and-white episodes of “I Love Lucy” that were broadcast in the ’50s on CBS-TV via television sets equipped with rabbit-ear antennas.

Most of us discovered the shows somewhat later, either in reruns, DVD box sets or through YouTube snippets. Whatever the format, they retain their crazy spark of genius, generating giddy laughter and delight decade after decade. Classics of the Golden Age of television, “I Love Lucy” episodes are in many ways America’s most masterful example of the mid-20th century comedy of manners.

The truth is, there has never been a couple more antic, tempestuous and irresistible than Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball), that beautiful redhead with the irrepressible sense of mischief and thwarted ambition, and her husband, Ricky (Desi Arnaz), the dashing, heavily accented, hopelessly macho Cuban emigre and singer-bandleader.

And of course, if your dreams were invariably geared toward breaking into show business, as Lucy’s were, what better landlords could you have for your New York brownstone than a couple of droll vaudevillians like Ethel and Fred Mertz, who were played so winningly by Vivian Vance and William Frawley?

“I Love Lucy Live On Stage,” which receives its Midwest premiere Sept. 19 at the Broadway Playhouse, is a theatrical “reinvention” and musical comedy tribute to those classic shows. A hit when it opened at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles last year, it is set in 1952, in Hollywood’s Desilu Studios, and reenacts (“in full color”) the live “filming” of two episodes of the sitcom. (“I Love Lucy” was the first scripted television program to be shot on 35mm film in front of a studio audience.) And yes, you guessed it, YOU are the studio audience.

“I was born in 1957, so I grew up on the morning reruns, flipping stations between ‘Lucy’ and ‘I Married Joan’,” said Rick Sparks, the show’s director and co-adapter, with Kim Flagg. “I quickly realized how much better ‘Lucy’ was.”

The stage show grew out of Sparks’ involvement with a CBS-generated tribute tour about “Lucy” that re-created the show’s set. It contained several interactive setups, including one with the big vat from the episode in which Lucy stomped on grapes to make wine.

“It was a huge success at conventions,” said Sparks. “And I kept thinking: If only we could put real actors in this thing. Then I found out about plans for this project, I got in touch with the producers and made my pitch. Of course there was a certain audacity about trying to represent these beloved characters on stage. But the idea was never to impersonate them. We just wanted to create a love letter — a Valentine to the essence of the show, and to the whole era of television, along with the advertising that was such a part of it.” (The show features the Crystaltone Singers performing live advertising jingles in 1950s harmony style.)

As Sparks explained: “The idea for the original television show grew out of the effort of Ball and Arnaz to stay together geographically and keep their marriage intact. The powers that be at CBS initially thought the notion of this sitcom about the marriage of a dizzy redhead and her Cuban husband would challenge belief, so the two went out on a vaudeville circuit tour to test-market it, got brilliant reviews and took the idea back to CBS.”

Sparks selected two relatively unknown episodes to recreate for the live show, complete with “The Ricky Ricardo Orchestra” of the Tropicana Nightclub. In one, from 1952, Lucy, always hellbent on getting into showbiz, tries to become part of a Fine Arts Benefit and does a number called “Bamboo Tree.” In another, from 1953, she does a jitterbug.

“Lucille Ball was not only gorgeous, but she was a brilliant actress who played the totally honest intention behind the most ridiculous situations,” said Sparks. “She even brought Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx onto the set to serve as physical comedy coaches. Desi had an easy, instinctive comedic style that he picked up from people like Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.”

Sirena Irwin, who portrays Lucy in the show, confessed that she did not grow up with “Lucy” reruns.

“For a long time my family didn’t have a TV,” she said, explaining that her dad was a physicist who “dropped out” and traveled in a VW bus for awhile, and her mom was a classical pianist who toured Europe.

“So it wasn’t until I was in college that I first saw episodes of the show, and I’d never seen the iconic ‘Vitameatavegamin’ episode when I was asked to do it for my audition. What I’ve discovered since then is that the key to Lucy was her playfulness — her willingness to go anywhere with the material, doing zany, outrageous things that were nevertheless grounded in truth. And she was so free physically, so unafraid of making ugly faces at a time when female comedians were very rare. Of course playing her is still hugely intimidating to me.”

Bill Mendieta, who portrays Desi (and whose heritage is a mix of Basque, Mexican, Guatamalan and French), grew up in San Francisco — part of a large family of musical artists who loved watching classic TV and movies together. He spoke Spanish with his grandmother and has learned more Spanish from playing various roles that involved the language.

“My musical background has helped me pick up accents pretty quickly,” he said. “For Desi I listened to videos online, and to other Cubans, all of whom speak very quickly and with a particular rhythm. I also watched how Ricky delivered his songs in the show. Of course we have to make things work theatrically, and we also have to make them come from us. But with Desi, here is this musician so at home in the Cuban lifestyle, who is married to an American woman who is a little wacky. And often he’s just trying to catch up with what she’ll do next.”

It is Irwin who thinks she has the true secret to “I Love Lucy.”

“I think it’s the absolutely undying love and adoration these two people had for each other,” she said. “There may have been tension in their real-life marriage, but in their show, despite the playful antagonism, it was all about love.”

  • In previews; opens Sept. 19 and runs through Nov. 11
  • Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 17 E. Chestnut, Chicago, IL
  • Tickets, $23-$65
  • (800) 775-2000;

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