Saturday, October 20, 2012

"I Love Lucy" Live on Stage is Likable if Not Quite a 'Ball' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

"I Love Lucy" Live on Stage
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Thru November 11

Unlike millions of people a bit older than me—but not just—I have never loved Lucy.

This is much less a matter of distaste than non-subjective disinterest. More ‘just because I never bothered’ than due to any active avoidance, throughout my 44 years I have only seen a handful of episodes of I Love Lucy or any subsequent Lucille Ball sitcoms, and none recently enough to have any recollection of what happened on them.

This isn’t to say that I don’t have regard for Lucy's tremendous comedic talents or the cultural importance of her vastly successful shows. It’s just that as opposed to many others who have seen “I Love Lucy” Live on stage—as I did Thursday night at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse—I didn’t have a highly acute point of comparison.

Plus, logic would suggest that Sirena Irwin, who plays Lucy Ricardo, has to be pretty darn talented to be cast in the role but unlikely to be a precise replica of Ball, one of the most gifted and beloved comedians and actresses of all time.

So as a pair of I Love Lucy episodes were re-created before my eyes, I didn’t waste much effort trying to discern how closely Irwin and Bill Mendieta (as Ricky Ricardo) matched the real Lucy and Desi. 

All that mattered was whether I was being sufficiently entertained.

And I would say I was, although from a financial value standpoint, it helped that I Love Lucy was included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series. For me, it wouldn’t have been worth the $67-$82 regular tickets seem to be running.

While I can see the appeal of this show—which enacts two actual teleplays as if the episodes were being shot within the Desliu Productions studios—for avid fans of I Love Lucy and/or for groups of friends looking to share a fun night out, as live theater it’s a solid step below several of the other great choices at this busy time in Chicago (Sunday in the Park with George, Kinky Boots, 33 Variations, Sweet Bird of Youth, Good People, just to name a few).

After a studio emcee played by Ed Kross welcomes the audience in affably cheesy 50’s fashion and introduces Irwin and Mendieta as Lucy and Ricky—without ever mentioning the names Lucille Ball or Desi Arnaz; must be some kind of legal thing—the ersatz Ricardos are joined by Fred and Ethel Mertz (Curtis Pettyjohn, Joanna Daniels) in a live rendition of “The Benefit.”

This is an episode in which Ricky is asked by Ethel to sing at a charity benefit show and Lucy loops herself in despite being a terrible singer. What happens on-stage is fun—with all the characterizations seeming fine for someone with a scant point of reference—but I doubt it would make anyone who remembers the original episode forget it.

The second episode that was performed—”Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined”—was also rather enjoyable, as it featured a live band accompanying Ricky singing his signature “Babalu.”

While the episode re-creations were certainly the centerpiece of “I Love Lucy” Live on Stage—which is staged and directed by Rick Sparks—what actually made the whole thing a bit more intriguingly anthropological were the enactments of classic commercials that accompanied the shows (from Brylcream, Alka-Seltzer, Chevrolet, etc.), as well as a medley of popular songs from the age performed between the two episodes.

Not only was it fun for me to see the involvement of actors I’ve long seen on local stages—George Keating and Richard Strimer among them—but it was interesting to be reminded anew what commercials used to be like. And as I said to my friend Paolo during the song medley, which was pleasantly performed but showcased rather saccharine, sanitized melodies, “This is why Elvis blew people’s minds.”

As much as the production serving as a likable but not life-changing tribute to one of America’s greatest entertainers and works of entertainment, “I Love Lucy” Live on Stage was an enjoyable glimpse into an age gone by, for both better and worse.

IMHO, there are several better live entertainment options in Chicago right now than this fun but slight piece of nostalgia, but if you think you want to see it, I wouldn’t tell you not to tune-in. And given that the Broadway Playhouse was packed on a Thursday night, many weeks into the run, it seems there are a whole lot of people who still love Lucy.

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