From its smash 2011 Los Angeles debut only a few blocks from CBS Television City and its subsequent hit Chicago run, I Love Lucy® Live on Stage has now arrived as a great big National Tour for one all-too-brief Southern California stop at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.
The perfect gift for anyone who may have wondered what it was like to have been inside Desilu Studios for a taping of the sitcom that revolutionized TV, I Love Lucy® Live on Stage provides a time machine back to the early 1950s—and a hundred of the funnest/funniest minutes you’re likely to have all year.
Following a sparklingly choreographed opening sequence that introduces us to the multitalented supporting ensemble, 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” provide 1950s vocal harmonies. Classic ’50s 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 small-town 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 Segerstrom Center, beginning with the always amazing Sparks, who has seen his brainchild grow to a National Tour programmed alongside Broadway smashes like the upcoming Book Of Morman and Jersey Boys.
And then there’s I Love Lucy® Live on Stage’s sensational star duo, who’ve been with the production since day one, from L.A. to Chicago and now across the country.
It goes without saying that there can also be no I Love Lucy without an actress capable of filling Lucille Ball’s shoes, and Sirena Irwin is that actress, and then some. Not only does Irwin replicate Lucy’s vocal mannerisms, posture, and gestures, she does so in a superb bit of acting far removed from the celebrity impersonation a lesser talent would bring the role, delivering a performance that has only grown richer in the past two years (including several bits that clearly differentiate between Lucy and Lucille).
Boyishly handsome Bill Mendieta makes for an absolutely terrific Ricky in a performance that time has only enriched, nailing the Cuban bandleader’s trademark accent and his Desi Arnaz pipes, and providing Irwin’s Lucy with the perfect straight man.
Chicago’s divine Joanna Daniels and L.A.’s very own Kevin Remington have clearly done their Ethel and Fred homework as well, and like Irwin and Mendieta capture the essence of Vivian Vance and William Frawley without caricature in a pair of perfectly marvelous supporting turns. 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 is a splendiferous ensemble made up almost entirely of L.A.-based performers (a rarity in National Tourdom), beginning with original cast member extraordinaire Gregory Franklin as Broadway impresario Bill Parker; a bubbly Jayme Lake as makeup girl Ernestine; a hilarious Carlos Martin doing his best Frank Nelson as Lucy’s eye doctor; original cast member Denise Moses, an absolute delight as Speedy Alka Seltzer, the Dorothy Day spokesperson, and the audience member from Oklahoma; original cast member Cynthia Sciacca, a perky treat as Daisy Davenport; a delightful Carolynne Warren as the audience plant from Kankakee; a velvet-voiced Sarah Elizabeth Combs as the one and only Dinah Beach; and the marvelous Tracy as our host. Chicago’s Richard Strimer joins these Angelinos as master dance partner for Lucy’s comic jitterbug. Combs, Franklin, Lake, Martin, Sciacca, and Strimer join voices in six-part harmonies as the Crystaltone Singers. Add to that Tyler Milliron as stage manager Gerald, and Tamara Zook (taking the night off as Frannie) and Peter Kevoian standing by for just about every female and male role and you’ve got one humdinger of a cast.
Musical director/arranger Wayne Moore on first keyboard leads the sensational onstage-at-the-Tropicana Ricky Ricardo band, featuring alternate conductor Andy Belling on second keyboard, Ron Barrows on trumpet, Steve Bringelson on bass, Davd Lotfi on drums and conga, David Olivas on saxophone, and Nicholas Stankus on guitar, banjo, and conga.
I Love Lucy® Live on Stage features original music 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 (in living color!) by scenic designer Aaron Henderson. Shon LeBlanc and Kelly Bailey’s Technicolorful costumes are each and every one a visual treat. Chris Wojcieszyn lights all this to perfection, with Cricket S. Myers providing her usual topnotch sound design. Diane Martinous scores top marks for her hair and wig design and Karina Branson and Desiree Falcon for their makeup design.
Sarah Hall is production stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.
In less capable hands, I Love Lucy® Live on Stage could easily have fizzled. Thanks to Sparks and his talented team, it dazzles—and then some. I had a great time at I Love Lucy® Live on Stage the first time round and loved it every bit as much in its latest, larger-scale incarnation. As a matter of fact, I had a (Lucille) Ball.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
March 18, 2014
Photos: Jeremy Daniel