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No one has a ball at I Love Lucy

The actors far outshine the material

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Hollywood had already been a screwy place for many years when I Love Lucy premiered on TV in 1951, and LA-LA Land has shown no signs of wising up or reforming during the intervening years. So anyone expecting the new "Live on Stage" version, originally produced in Metro LA and currently touring at Knight Theater, to faithfully replicate the experience of seeing Lucy filmed before a live studio audience needs to lower his or her expectations to Hollywood levels.

The whole idea of transforming a theater into a TV studio is part of the twisted Left Coast mindset. Could you imagine a 2013 audience going out to see a live staging of the three or four best episodes from the pioneering sitcom often judged to be the best TV series of all time — presented as if each of those episodes could rock the theater and leave us in hysterics? Nutty idea, according to these Hollywood masterminds. So they give their show a title, I Love Lucy Live on Stage, which leads us to expect exactly that, and then they pull this studio switcheroo — dressing up two Lucy episodes that could hardly be more obscure or forgettable with a lot of needless frou-frou.

Did I say needless? Make that needless and inauthentic frou-frou. While Mark Christopher Tracy acts as our Desilu Playhouse Host, the script he's saddled with simultaneously attempts to sustain the illusion that the show we're watching is live and filmed. So aside from Tracy's warm-up and between-scenes patter, we get a series of commercial breaks, featuring a live vocal quartet singing jingles for Brylcreem, Halo Shampoo, Alka-Seltzer and Chevrolet.

Casting aside the unlikelihood of Desilu hiring the Crystaltone Singers to sing commercial jingles to a studio audience during a filming session, I can't find confirmation that any of these products were national sponsors of Lucy. On the contrary, Halo and Chevy were actually manufactured by competitors of verified sponsors, and Mr. Clean, another product memorialized in jingle, didn't even exist before the Lucy series ended.

These jingles do offer an insight into what the co-writers — Kim Flagg and Rick Sparks — were thinking when they assembled this mess and endowed it with continuity. Not only wouldn't we simpletons sit still for a batch of unadorned Lucy episodes, we would stage a riot and walk out if this production weren't a stone's throw away from being a Broadway musical.

That's why we hear the Chevy jingle at greater length than Dinah Shore ever sang it at the end of her long-running show, and that's why the Halo and Brylcreem jingles have mushroomed to nearly folk song length. And it's about the only logical reason I can come up with for why this production team chose "The Benefit" and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" for this very talented company of actors and singers to bring back to life.

In "The Benefit," Ricky Ricardo is balking at the idea of performing for Ethel Mertz's ladies' club, so it becomes Lucy's mission to come to her best friend's rescue and persuade her husband to change his mind. But — shameless ham that she is — Lucy won't come to Ethel's aid unless she herself is part of the entertainment package. So we get a demo of how badly Lucy sings, two samplings of songs she and Ricky might sing, and the final product.

Once again in "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined," the Luce is rabidly showbiz hungry. This time she gets wind that Ricky's dinner guest, William Parker, is actually a powerhouse Hollywood producer who is looking to cast a new movie musical. She, Ethel and Ethel's husband Fred all besiege Parker, clamoring for on-the-spot auditions. Parker calls for a dinner moratorium in exchange for allowing Lucy and the Mertzes chances to audition the next afternoon at Ricky's club. Lucy, he hints, might be perfect if she can jitterbug. By the end of this one, we've had plenty of singing and dancing from all our stars — with a heavy dollop of physical comedy after Lucy has her eyes dilated.

You probably didn't expect an 80-minute evening of I Love Lucy to include a live band performing "Varsity Rag," "Stompin' at the Savoy," plus five irrelevant commercial jingles, including the theme song from The Dinah Shore Show. That's not even the complete list, but it betrays a stupefying lack of confidence in our leading players' comedic gifts. Two comedy plants in the audience, intended to fortify Tracy's patter, further demonstrate the writing team's misgivings about the purported core of the evening.

Truth is, all four of the principals are superb. Except when targeting Desi Arnaz, nobody has ever done comedy impressions of any of these vintage TV darlings. Yet the voices are uncanny in their resemblance to the originals. Kevin Remington is probably the furthest physically from what he should look like as Fred Mertz, but he has William Frawley's voice and delivery down pat. Joanna Daniels is even more extraordinary as Ethel, with all the gossipy, conspiratorial and cowardly overlays that Vivian Vance added to this sassy sidekick.

Far from the customary caricature, Bill Mendieta reminds us what an underappreciated asset Desi Arnaz was in providing Lucille Ball with a vibrant platform to shine on. Younger and thinner than the Ricky Ricardo embedded in my memory, Mendieta tunes into the chemistry of the marriage as precisely as he renders Desi's Cuban accent and his signature "Babalu" vocal.

With a fiery red wig that practically cries out to clear the building, Sirena Irwin's outsized performance as Lucy Ricardo — almost like watching an animated cartoon at times — won't be everyone's ideal. I marveled at Irwin's ability to capture the timbre of Lucille Ball's husky voice and her natural way of replicating Lucy's comic facial expressions with that eerie cartoonish patina. The off-key singing is absolutely spot-on, drawing nearly the response that Lucy's did in her heyday. Only when she jitterbugs does Irwin allow her own individuality to peep through, briefly outshining the object of her homage.

Trivia junkies will likely delight in the complete commercial jingles and the rarely heard lyrics of the I Love Lucy theme song, genially sung by Mendieta and Irwin. The three-camera setup for filming Lucy, painstakingly described by our host, was actually a significant advance in both the production and distribution of TV, paving the way for reruns and syndication. And after slathering on more cheesiness than I could stomach even with two Alka-Seltzers, Sparks proves to be quite adroit as a stage director in reformulating the vitality and zaniness of the TV classic we've come to see.

If only he loved Lucy more and his own frou-frou less.

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