Rerun on stage likable for those who loved ‘Lucy’
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org September 20, 2012 12:58AM
‘I Love LUCY:
Live On Stage’
When: Through Nov.11
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Updated: October 22, 2012 6:05AM
Those nostalgic for 1950s America will have their internal time clocks gently rewound courtesy of “I Love Lucy: Live On Stage,” the sweet little 95-minute musical comedy “re-enactment” of two episodes of the sitcom, and all that surrounded them. The show, now onstage at the Broadway Playhouse, can’t really reinvent the brilliant nuttiness of its source material, but it has its winning moments.
While the iconic CBS-TV series was initially viewed on black-and-white sets, what the live audience on the sound stage of the Desilu Playhouse stage saw was Technicolor bright, and so do we.
Watching it you recall that people could then fly off to Havana as easily as to Miami Beach (the Castro brothers were not yet in the picture), or simply sit in their living room and enjoy Ricky Ricardo leading his Latin band at the Tropicana Nightclub, wailing “Babalu” as his drummers pounded their congas and bongos.
Fashion-wise you can now laugh at the Dior-influenced cocktail dresses with crinoline-puffed skirts and pinched waists, or enjoy that chic fashionista, Lucille Ball, in capri pants and little ballet flats. Or, you can laugh at the now-corny, lavishly produced, jingle-driven commercials for Brylcreem, Alka-Seltzer, Halo shampoo and Chevrolets.
And then there is this: If you watch carefully, and notice how distracted Lucy is as she waves her feather duster over the furniture, you realize she was in many ways the housewife with a feminist itch — even if that itch only manifested itself in attempts to break into show business. Unquestionably Lucy and Ricky love each other, but they also compete. And Lucy will not be deterred — by anything.
Adapted for the stage by Kim Flagg and Rick Sparks, and directed by Sparks, the show fully “replays” two episodes.
In “The Benefit,” Lucy (Sirena Irwin) agrees to coax Ricky (Bill Mendieta) into performing at the Fine Arts Club benefit chaired by their neighbor, Ethel Mertz (Joanna Daniels). But her real goal is to share the spotlight with her husband, even if she can’t sing a note on key. As it turns out, Lucy grabs every punchline from Ricky; she is incapable of being second banana.
In the second episode, “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” Ricky brings a powerful producer home to dinner, and Lucy is far more hell-bent on auditioning for his upcoming Broadway musical than cooking a roast. Ethel and Fred Mertz (Curtis Pettyjohn is perfect), retired vaudevillians, are still crazy for show biz and pull out a Varsity Rag number. Lucy, partnered by her jitterbug teacher (rubber-legged Richard Strimer is a hoot) and backed by Ricky’s terrific band, performs the acrobatic number terrifically at a rehearsal. But the real test comes after a doctor puts sight-blurring eyedrops into her eyes, and the dance goes haywire.
Irwin, a petite beauty who has much of Ball’s body language down, dances up a storm. But there was only one Lucille Ball. Mendieta has a natural Ricardo-esque charm (and the Cuban accent), and the stage brightens when he sings, backed by a seven-piece onstage band led by musical director Alan Bukowiecki. (You realize how sparingly Desi Arnaz was used on TV, and here you certainly wish the appealing Mendieta had more to do here.)
Both Irwin and Mendieta appeared in the Los Angeles version of the show. Here, Chicago actors fill the rest of the cast. Ed Kross easily finesses the role of Maury Jasper, the engaging host of the TV show who interacts with the real audience and a couple of funny female ringers (Sara Sevigny and Debbie Laumand-Blanc). The harmonizing Crystaltone Sjoingers (Ashley Braxton, Lauren Creel, Gregory Franklin, Karl Hamilton, Rebecca Prescott and Strimer) morph easily from one song and sketch to another.
Enjoyable, yes. But by the end of the show you might just be wondering: If the original episodes are available on tape, is any of this really necessary?