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Chicago by John Olson

I Love Lucy Live on Stage
Broadway Playhouse

Also see John's reviews of Good People and Jitney


Gregory Franklin, Bill Mendieta, Sirena Irwin, Curtis Pettyjohn and Joanna Daniels
Just the night before this Los Angeles-originated production opened at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse, "I Love Lucy" was announced as the favorite TV series of all time in a poll conducted by ABC News and People Magazine. One of the first and biggest hits in network TV history, it's reportedly never been off the air since. The premise of this show is to give the audience the thrill of being in a studio audience for a filming of two episodes of "I Love Lucy" in 1952. Fair enough ... I guess if time travel were possible, the first choice for many theatre lovers would be to go back to see an historic Broadway performance like Laurette Taylor's in The Glass Menagerie. The desire to see Lucille Ball creating a classic TV episode would be enticing, for sure.

The obvious difficulty in this is, of course, we all know the real thing so well. And, while this show boasts some fine talent on stage, there's really no imitating Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, or for that matter Desi Arnaz or Vivian Vance. Their Lucy is a very funny actress by the name of Sirena Irwin, who in a red wig (designed by Diane Martinous) looks enough like Lucy. In the second of two actual TV scripts from the series performed on stage, "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined," Irwin handles the physical comedy quite capably. You may recall the episode: Lucy accompanies Ricky to an appointment with an eye doctor (played here by Karl Hamilton a la Gale Gordon), only to find she's the one with the vision problem. The doctor dilates her eyes before warning her that her vision will be temporarily impaired, ruining her big dance audition for a Broadway producer. Ms. Irwin can't quite nail the Lucy Ricardo character voice, though (and who could?). She does better as the elegant, out-of-character Lucille Ball we saw much less of in TV land.

The same is true of Joanna Daniels playing Vivian Vance/Ethel Mertz. She makes a good try, and has decent comic timing, but she can't quite capture Vance's distinctive semi-nasal twang. You'd think Ricky Ricardo's fractured Cuban accent would be easier to imitate, but Bill Mendieta—a really fine performer and singer—doesn't get there either. Also, he (and director/adapter Rick Sparks, presumably) understandably softens Ricky's controlling/man-of-the-house demeanor that in fact might seem just a little disturbing from today's perspective. On the other hand, Curtis Pettyjohn absolutely nails William Frawley as Fred Mertz—with spot-on impressions of Frawley's voice and comic timing.

Sparks and co-writer adapter Kim Flagg lead off the mock filming with "The Benefit," an episode which, like the previously mentioned "Eyes Examined," was written for the TV series by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. In it, Lucy worms her way into performing with Ricky at Ethel's charity, where she steals all his punch lines. It was probably a wise choice not to have taken on any of "I Love Lucy"'s most famous situations, like Lucy's "Vitameatavegamin" commercial or Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory—the comparisons would have been even more disappointing against such well-known routines, but the episodes Sparks and Flagg chose seem a little flaccid in comparison.

Sparks and Flagg wrap studio audience preparation and live performances of period TV commercial jingles around the two episodes. There's a studio warm up man played by Chicago's Ed Kross, who cleverly creates a '50s shticky gag man and lands some pretty funny lines. They pluck some mock Midwestern tourist audience members (Sara Sevigny and Debbie Laumand-Blanc) from the real theater audience. This stuff is only intermittently funny. The commercials—including jingles like "Brylcreem (A little dab'll do ‘ya)," Speedy Alka-Seltzer," "Mr. Clean" and a Dinah Shore parody (named Dina Beach, get it?) singing "See the USA in Your Chevrolet"—have some historical interest and nostalgic charm, but as they would not likely have been performed for a studio audience since the "Lucy" performances were filmed for later air dates, it takes away from the attempt at authenticity. Together with the faux tourists in the audience, the commercials contribute to a feeling that Sparks and company are commenting on the period rather than lovingly re-creating it.

The simple set by Aaron Henderson seems pretty accurate, as do Shon LeBlanc's costumes. Alan Bukowiecki's seven-piece re-creation of Ricky Ricardo's orchestra does a great job of backing up Mendieta's impressive vocals. All told, I Love Lucy Live on Stage is a pleasant enough evening, but neither accurate enough to be a satisfying tribute to Ball, Arnaz, Vance and Frawley nor sincere enough to be a loving re-creation of the golden age of television.

I Love Lucy Live on Stage will play the Broadway Playhouse, 175 East Chestnut St., through November 11, 2012. For ticket information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com or call (800) 775-2000. For more information on the show, please visit ilovelucylive.com.


Photo: provided by Broadway in Chicago

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-- John Olson



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