Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to be inside Desilu Studios for a taping of the sitcom that revolutionized TV? If so, then let I Love Lucy® Live on Stage be your time machine back to the early 1950s—and ninety of the funnest/funniest minutes you’re likely to have all year.

Appropriately situated only a few blocks from CBS Television City, Fairfax Avenue’s Greenway Theatre has been transformed into the next-best-thing to an honest-to-goodness ‘50s TV soundstage, from the period-garbed usherettes who take you to your seats to the vintage advertisements adorning the walls around you to Lucy and Ricky’s living room, a dead ringer for the one we’ve all seen umpteen times, though probably never in living color.

Host Mark Christopher Tracy warms up the audience, checking to see who’s come the farthest, cuing us in to what’s in store, and introducing a pair of audience plants from Oklahoma and Illinois.

From there we are introduced to “the stars of our show” (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are never referred to by name) who are about to become Havana-born bandleader Ricky Ricardo and his wacky, showbiz-aspiring wife Lucy.

The brilliant brainchild of directorial whiz Rick Sparks, I Love Lucy® Live on Stage treats us to the “filming” of two authentic I Love Lucy episodes: “The Benefit,” Season One’s 13th episode originally aired on January 7, 1952, and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” the 13th episode of Season Three, originally aired on December 14, 1953—both of them scripted by TV legends Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll Jr.

A pair of big black 1950s-era movie cameras remind us that a) I Love Lucy was the first TV sitcom to be shot in front of a studio audience and b) each episode was filmed, not broadcast live as was most of television in its early years.

Though not among the most famous of I Love Lucy episodes, “The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined” couldn’t have been better chosen to spotlight all the things we recall about Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel, most especially Lucy’s dreams and schemes to get into show biz.

In Episode One, Lucy asks Ricky to perform for her women’s club benefit and naturally sees this as her chance to be his costar. There’s a hilarious standup sequence which has Lucy deliberately beating Ricky to the punch line each and every time, and another in which America’s favorite redhead learns that her only part in the “Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear” duet is the word “Auf.”

In Episode Two, Ricky invites Broadway producer “Bill Parker” to dinner and naturally Lucy sees this as her chance to get into the business we call show. A jitterbug lesson from zoot-suited “King Kat Walsh” has Lucy certain she’s ready for her audition, but a visit to the optometrist (and some particularly powerful eye drops) render her incapable of judging distances when the big moment arrives.

Is there anyone who doesn’t remember the way Lucy made fun of Ricky’s Cuban accent, how she’d bawl until Ricky would cave to her demands, the caterwauling Lucy called singing, or the way she’d coax her hubby with a “Now Ricky”? They’re each and every one of them in I Love Lucy® Live on Stage., along with Ricky’s signature number “Babalu” and the show’s theme song, sung in its entirety. And what would an I Love Lucy episode be without Lucy and Ethel in cahoots for one scheme or other?

Truth be told, no genuine TV taping would run as smoothly as these two do, though we do see Lucille Ball, correction, “the star of our show,” go up on her lines twice, requiring retakes. We also see how a “hand stand-in” shoots a close-up of “Lucy” signing a poster, to be inserted during the editing process we are told.

“The Crystalline Singers” serenade us to 1950s Hit Parade favorites before each episode. Classic 1950s commercials are recreated live, including ones for Brylcreem (“A Little Dab’ll Do Ya!”) and “Speedy” Alka Seltzer. The entire “See The U.S.A. (In Your Chevrolet)” gets sung by none other than Dinah Shore. Sorry, make that Dinah Beach. Best of all is the recreation of an actual 1950s TV spot that tested Dorothy Grey Facial Cleanser’s ability to remove dirt made “just radioactive enough to register on a Geiger counter.”

Between episodes, one real audience member gets to compete with a red polka-dotted visitor from Kankakee, Illinois in an I Love Lucy trivia contest for a year’s supply of Halo Shampoo.

Could you ask for anything more?

Naturally, none of this would work without the talent on and off stage at the Greenway Playhouse beginning with the always amazing Sparks, who can move effortlessly from directing a serious piece like Daddy to a comedy like That Perfect Moment (both of which won him Best Director Scenie Awards) to the unique theatrical event that is I Love Lucy® Live on Stage, which he has not only directed but musically staged as well.

There can also be no I Love Lucy without an actress capable of filling Lucille Ball’s shoes, and though Sirena Irwin isn’t a physical dead ringer for Lucy Ricardo, she so captures her comedic persona that the resemblance is ultimately uncanny. Irwin replicates Lucy’s vocal mannerisms, posture, and gestures in what is a superb bit of acting and not the celebrity impersonation a lesser talent would bring the role.

Boyishly handsome Bill Mendieta makes for a terrific Ricky, nailing the Cuban bandleader’s trademark accent and his Desi Arnaz pipes, and providing Irwin’s Lucy with the perfect straight man. Lisa Joffrey and understudy Michael Dempsey have clearly done their Ethel and Fred homework, and like Irwin and Mendieta capture the essence of William Frawley and Vivian Vance without caricature. As an added treat, the pair get to perform one of the Mertzes’ classic vaudeville numbers, “The Varsity Drag,” and do so with old-time showbiz pizzazz.

Supporting the stellar foursome are the couldn’t-be-better ninesome of Tom Christensen (dance partner extraordinaire for Lucy’s comic jitterbug); the ever splendid Gregory Franklin as Broadway impresario Bill Parker; a sparkly Kerri-Anne Lavin as the makeup girl; the always fabulous Ed Martin doing his best Frank Nelson as Lucy’s eye doctor; Denise Moses, spot-on as Speedy Alka Seltzer, the Dorothy Day spokesperson, and the audience member from Oklahoma; Cynthia Sciacca, a bubbly delight as Prize Girl; the hilarious Amy Tolsky as the audience plant from Kankakee; a golden-throated Gina Torrecilla as the one and only Dinah Beach; and the marvelous Tracy as our host.

Musical director/arranger Wayne Moore on piano leads the sensational onstage-at-the-Tropicana Ricky Ricardo band, featuring Andy Belling on keyboards, Jonathan Bradley on trumpet, Ivor Francis on guitar, Ken Francis on bass and conga, Adam Halitzka on drum and conga, and David Olivas on saxophone.

I Love Lucy® Live on Stage features additional original music and recordings by Peitor Angell and has been adapted for the stage by Kim Flagg and Sparks, who also provided new material.

Sparks has savvily selected episodes requiring only two trademark I Love Lucy locales—the Ricardos’ apartment and Ricky’s Tropicana—both of them meticulously recreated by scenic designer Aaron Henderson. Shon LeBlanc’s Technicolorful costumes are some of the best he’s ever designed, and that’s saying something. Jeremy Pivnick lights all this to perfection, with Cricket S. Myers providing her usual topnotch sound design. Byron J. Batista scores top marks for his wig and makeup design, though Lucy’swig was looking rather too bouffant at the performance reviewed. Justine Baldwin is production stage manager.

I Love Lucy® Live on Stage is presented by S. Kahn Presents, Inc. and Millrock courtesy of CBS Broadcasting Inc. David George and Stephen Kahn are executive producers. Flagg and Hyra George are producers.

In less capable hands, I Love Lucy® Live on Stage might have fizzled. Thanks to Sparks and his talented team, it sizzles—and then some. I had an absolute (Lucille) Ball! (Oops! Not allowed to say that.)

Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Blvd., West Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 22, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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