September 23, 2013

Stage version of 'I Love Lucy' adds little new to beloved franchise

Not the brilliant character created by Jamestown native Lucille Ball, who charmed her way into millions of Americans' hearts on the '50s television show that bore her name, but the full-color version now creaking across the stage of the 710 Main Theatre. 

That's not to say that Sirena Irwin, who plays the rehydrated version of Lucille Ball's famous character, is not a gifted impersonator. Or that Bill Mendieta, who plays Ricky Ricardo with no shortage of talent or charm, is not the spitting image of Desi Arnaz. 

It's just that this new touring production of "I Love Lucy Live on Stage," which originated in Los Angeles and inaugurated the 710 Main Theatre's first full season on Thursday night, has very little to offer beyond a sort of colorized photocopy of the original. 

The show, adapted from original "I Love Lucy" episodes by Kim Flagg and Rick Sparks, is pleasant enough for those seeking a simple replay of their childhood television viewing experiences, but bound to disappoint anyone looking for a uniquely theatrical experience. 

Aside from a few tossed-in flourishes, the 140-minute, intermissionless production is a faithful reproduction of two "I Love Lucy" episodes: "The Benefit," in which Lucy convinces Desi to perform at a fundraiser; and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined," which features a botched jitterbug performance between Lucy and a suave dance instructor. 

The episodes themselves are sterling examples of comic writing, full of wonderfully absurd situations and humor that carries a reassuring vaudevillian ring. In the production's threadbare conceit, theatergoers themselves are cast in the roles of a studio audience for "I Love Lucy," and subject to the harmless, reheated humor of a set manager played by the charming Mark Christopher Tracy. 

Between scenes, we're treated to an increasingly bizarre and unsettling series of product advertisements for Brylcreem and Alka-Seltzer that are loaded with comic potential themselves but end up as misplaced punctuation marks. The same goes for a strange musical medley inserted between episodes that seems to come out of nowhere and serves no discernible purpose. 

Other musicals that consciously exploit the profit potential of baby-boomer nostalgia at least have the decency to throw in some extra value. Take "Jersey Boys," in which we get to peer into the personal lives of Frankie Valli and company while being treated to rousing performances directly aimed at our brains' nostalgia centers. 

Perhaps an even better model for how to do a show like this right is another Los Angeles export, "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara," which uses Louis Prima and Keely Smith's charming music and comedy act as a lens through which to view their complex relationship. 

But this "Lucy" has none of that insight. It's merely a memory bath that reanimates familiar characters in a way that actually makes the show's pioneering comedy seem more old-fashioned than it actually is. 

Many moments in the original show, thanks largely to Ball's remarkable talents as a comedian and performer, still strike the viewer as surprisingly and even shockingly modern. But this color-by-numbers production, by contrast, seems utterly trapped in its era. 



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