Lucy’s all about the timing. And this show couldn’t have come at a better one. After days of dealing with closed schools and slick roads due to winter weather, the crowd was treated to the touring production of I Love Lucy Live on Stage Tuesday for its opening night at the Walton Arts Center.
The crowd was somewhat sparse, but its members were enthusiastic. They were rewarded for being there with this production that is much like a variety show itself and a nostalgic trip back in time.
The show presents the well-known characters from the beloved and popular 1950s television show I Love Lucy. It shows how Desilu Productions produced and taped episodes of the I Love Lucy show, treating the crowd as the live studio audience. In a logical format, this stage show recreates two episodes from the television show’s five-year run, which ended nearly 56 years ago.
This show uses episodes from the first and third seasons, “The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” created by show writers Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.
Maury Jasper (Mark Christopher Tracy) played the host of Desilu Playhouse, telling the audience that they’d be able to see these episodes on an upcoming Monday night during the show’s regular slot on CBS. An “applause” sign flashed on and off throughout the show. Jasper also took moments periodically to explain some of the behind-the-scenes details about how the television show is made.
Because television sets back then only showed black and white, this stage show is the first chance to experience these familiar characters in color. That was a true treat. It was also easy to watch this performance through foggy glasses, mentally substituting the actors from the television show into this performance. This cast well represented the peculiarities of the well-known characters.
In “The Benefit,” Lucy Ricardo tries to horn in on a benefit performance Ethel wants Ricky Ricardo to do for her women’s club. Lucy cannot stay on pitch, so Ricky eventually writes a show with songs and jokes — only, Lucy finds a way to upstage him.
In “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” Lucy wants to impress Bill Parker, a director friend of Ricky’s, when he comes to town. She finds out he’s scouting talent for a show, and she makes it her mission to get an audition. After she takes a crash course to learn the jitterbug, the eye doctor accidentally wrecks her chances at dancing well by dilating her eyes.
Bill Mendieta perfectly captured the character of Ricky, a Cuban-American musician, with superb singing. He also delivered Ricky’s delightful confusion with American idioms, such as “wild goose chase” and “behind my back.”
Sirena Irwin was spot on as she recreated Lucy, the naive redhead who is always scheming at something. Her eyes get wide when she has one of her ideas, and she purses her red-stained lips when she’s caught in the act, usually by her husband. She blubbers loudly and uncontrollably until she gets her way with Ricky. She also employs great physical comedy.
These two actors originated the roles of Lucy and Ricky when this show was originally produced in Los Angeles in September 2011. This history together shows, as they played well off of one another.
Another pair that worked well together were Joanna Daniels and Kevin Remington, who portrayed Ethel and Fred Mertz, neighbors and friends of Lucy and Ricky. Irwin and Daniels also perfectly depicted the delightful friendship between Lucy and Ethel.
Between the “taping” of the two episodes, an audience member from Springdale and a cast member planted in the audience took to the stage for a trivia contest. The improvised comedy during this was priceless.
This show also was chock-full of commercial jingles from the day — for Palmolive dish soap, Halo shampoo, Mr. Clean, Brylcreem and Chevrolet. An Alka-Seltzer spot featured tap-dancing tablets.
As a nice touch, the production’s band played from on stage the entire show, much of that cloaked behind a curtain. When revealed, they became the band at Ricky’s Tropicana nightclub.
This stage show appropriately kept the slow pace of the original 1950s television show, and that’s a good thing, to maintain the authenticity for which it clearly strove. Still, it seems like there might have been a way to keep that pace and feel, while livening it up in some other way for today. This show seems to reverently recreate the old show without saying anything new about it, which certainly could have made this one better.
Still, this new look at the old show easily reminds the audience why everyone loved Lucy so much — and why her simple, goofy humor, and the fundamentals of the classic comedy, endure.
Performances of I Love Lucy Live on Stage continue through Sunday at the Walton Arts Center. For tickets and information, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at waltonartscenter.org.