BWW Interviews: I LOVE LUCY's Bill Mendieta on Bringing Ricky Ricardo to Stage
Bill Mendieta, who's currently bringing Ricky Ricardo to life in I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE, has had no issues making 'Babalu' his own. The actor, who originated the role in Los Angeles, and won a BroadwayWorld Award for his performance, has followed the show for its Midwestern premiere at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
Prior to leading the band in LUCY, Mendieta has also appeared in SMASH, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and HAMLET.
In addition, the actor just finished shooting the feature film, DEAD BORDER. Other film credits include SOLIDER OF GOD, A NIGHTAT THE ROOSEVELT, THE CALLBACK MACIHE, TRES, GROK, and more. Mendieta also co-created and directed the comedy web series, MOB BOSS ASSOCIATE.
Mendieta recently chatted with BroadwayWorld, shedding some light on I LOVE LUCY's stage transformation, and what it took to become the master of ceremonies, Ricky Ricardo.
Thanks for talking with us! How are you resettling into Chicago?
It's beautiful here in Chicago. It's a nice city that really seems to appreciate its theater!
Thanks for talking with us! How are you resettling into Chicago after the extension? Congratulations, by the way! How does that feel? Chicagoans really seem to love LUCY.
Oh, it's great! I'm actually really enjoying it. Chicago audiences are really wonderful, really receptive, and really warm. We're having a great time doing it. It's good with the big audiences. They're laughing and they're having fun. This is a really nice theater town. It's nice because the audiences do show their appreciation and I really get the sense that Chicago likes its theater.
So how did you originally come to be involved with LUCY back in Los Angeles?
It happened a couple of years ago. It was one of those times when I was sitting at home, and I was like, "Okay, I've got to do something." Usually the projects I get involved with, I want to have some inspired passion to do it. So I was looking through some of the casting notices, and I found this one for an I LOVE LUCY project...and it attracted me because I knew the writing was good. I knew the classic sitcom material would challenge me. So I thought, 'I'm going to sink my teeth into that.'
I felt sure that I could do Ricky Ricardo - and that it would be a good role to do. To try and really master the classic sitcom style sounded like it would be a lot of fun. And eventually it grew into something more, and more, and more.
So then [the show] went into production in LA, and they wanted a 'proof of concept.' They wanted to prove to CBS - it was the first time CBS had allowed these scripts to be done live - they wanted to prove that this could be successful. So that's what the LA production had to do. And it was hugely successful. It sold out profusely. By the time we closed, there were still thousands on the waiting list trying to get tickets. That was quite nice and reassuring. Then they had the option to bring it to Chicago and they took that option, and it's turned out to be really wonderful. They wanted to cast locally here, and it's seemed to work out wonderfully. We had a great cast in Los Angeles. And we were blessed again here that everyone in the cast was just wonderful. We have a great time. Sometimes we hang out and, you know, go swing dancing up at the Drake Hotel on Saturdays. Sometimes we have a game night with each other. You know, it's been a lot of fun. It's been a great family experience, as well.
That's great. How valuable is that family experience to the show, and to you?
I think that's the key to pulling this project off. When we did our research, I was learning that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, in forming Desilu, had became a family as well with everyone involved...I think in creating what we were very fortunate to have, we fell into that similar feeling: we're having lots of fun. There's a lot of laughter onstage, backstage, in rehearsals. It's been a pleasure. It's really been a fun theatrical experience.
What more can you ask for?
Yeah, yeah. It's really been a great job. Ironically enough, Sirena [Irwin], who plays Lucy, and I, actually went to college together. So we knew each other from San Francisco State many years ago. We knew of each other along the years, but we hadn't worked together since. It was quite coincidental and nice - it worked out for this situation. Immediately we had a familiarity and trust, and you know, it's really good. She's grown to be one of my dearest friends. It's very sweet.
What was the process of becoming Ricky Ricardo like for you?
There's a trap that we can fall into with just mimicking what was done during the shows, I think. But I think to make it authentic, we have to take the same process that we would with any character: where do they come from, what are they brining to the table, how are they existing here in the situation? We broke it down like we do for any role. With Ricky, it was about coming from Cuba, struggling to be a successful band leader, be a successful singer, and have that ideal Amerian family with the American wife at home, and eventually kids. And of course, that was his dream.
Being a musician, there's a lot of musicality to that, he's got that beat in there. So when he does sing with the band, you can see that's where he's in his element, that's where he's shining. He's the king there. And it's so much fun for me to perform that. It's so much fun to do...with the audience and the songs that are in Spanish. To do those songs here on stage, it's an honor.
And how about connecting to Lucy (Irwin)?
At the core of it, between Lucy and Ricky, is the love. Even though there's so much frustration with the antics that Lucy pulls, still behind all that is the love and the passion they have for each other. And I think that was key in connecting with Ricky.
Did you try to bring a little bit of Desi Arnaz into the role, or did you strictly approach it as playing the role of Ricky Ricardo?
Great question. The big difference, as you see from the history, is that Lucille Ball was very different from Lucy Ricardo, as is Desi Arnaz different from Ricky Ricardo. But there's also something very similar. I didn't want to focus on anything detrimental to the loving relationship between them...But I really wanted to focus on Ricky Ricardo, because in my interpretation, he really does have a different history than Desi Arnaz.
Arnaz, when he came over, was very, very successful. Sure, he struggled. But what he did: having his own show, to being on Broadway, and being in movies, it's very different from Ricky Ricardo, who's still struggling. For me, there's a more approachability to Ricky, he's still trying to make it. Ricky is still trying to do it: they're living in a little New York apartment; he and Lucy are still very much struggling to make their careers. And as we can relate to as working actors, ourselves...I wanted to connect with the things that empowered Ricardo. Because we always have to remember: we're not just doing I LOVE LUCY, we're doing a play.
There's also a balance that we have to give to the expectations that audiences are coming in with. When they're coming in, they're going back into time, and suspending belief. They're going back into that studio audience, as if we're filming 2 episodes of the I LOVE LUCY show - with our host and the singers. I have to give them permission, by my performance, to jump on that rollercoaster ride.
The responsibility that Sirena and I have, in doing Lucy and Ricky, is that we have to let the audience in on the love that we have for each other, as a viable husband and wife, that they can laugh with, and have fun with, so they can go on the ride.
What do you think that it is - whether an interpretation of a classic, or the classicality itself - that brings audience members back?
It brings audiences that know and love LUCY - and they wonder: 'what the heck are they going to do with the show?' They're curious to come see it. And they see that we're not doing a story about Lucy and Desi Arnaz. We're doing, as Rick Sparks (Director/Co-Adaptor/Musical Staging) mentioned, a love letter to I LOVE LUCY. And we give them the experience to see it on another level. I think that's the attraction for it.
This is just my personal opinion, but in these times, when we've been bombarded with economic and political stress, to go back to a place and time where it was just very simple, very happy, and based in love and laugher, is a joy to come back to. LUCY has always been a popular show. We get to remind them that in 2013, that we still have those values. We still have that sense of love and laughter...and I think that's really healing. Really powerful.
How has the audience's reaction seemed to you personally?
When we get to speak with them afterwards, some people are smiling ear-to-ear, some are crying! Some of the older people were saying it brought back so many memories. Some of the die-hard fans that have travelled for miles and miles, all across the country, have come just to see the show.
This one little girl - Sirena told me - had seen the show three different times. She keeps telling her mom she wants to go back and see the 'I LOVE LUCY' show. She says she wants to be in theater for the rest of her life. She calls us 'her people.' As actors, that's great. We're lucky to have met her afterwards, and have that experience with her.
Are there any plans for LUCY once the run in Chicago ends?
You know, I'm not quite sure yet. There's been talk that we may go back to LA, or we may go on to a national tour. But nothing's been set. We don't quite know. We'll see how long we're going to stay here, or if it's going to go on. I can't say anything official, because I don't know! As long as there's an audience for it, I think [the show has] a bright future.
Chicago definitely seems to have an audience for LUCY.
Yeah! The great thing is, the show brings in people who may not necessarily be 'theater people.' They might be fans, and don't really go to theater, and come see I LOVE LUCY, and say 'Wow! I really love theater!'
Yeah, that seems to be one of the benefits of adapting something so beloved.
Exactly. And they have the rights to all of the episodes, so they may mix it up! That's been talked about as well.
It would be a great way to expand the show!
Yeah, we can always bring in more episodes, more songs. Even now, we're starting to do a lot of promotion for the show, and we're starting to learn a couple of different numbers to do, as well. A few different ones that Fred and Ethel sing, or Ricky and Lucy can sing, or all four can sing. Mainly for promo purposes, but it's exciting, too.
Anything you'd like to tell audiences before they come to LUCY?
In theater, audiences play a role. Here they' have a very crucial role to play. They don't only have to transport themselves to 1952, but their laughter and applause does make a difference! ...I consider it a blessing. We're so fortunate to do the show, and have so much fun doing it.
Thank you so much! Congratulations on the show. Chicago loves it.
Yeah, of course. We feel really lucky. I love doing it in Chicago. Chicago is such a good theater town - and the people are just really nice. Even the cranky ones are warm and funny. I'm really happy to be here.
I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE is currently running at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse, located at Water Tower Place, through March 3, 2013. Tickets range from $35-$85. A select number of premium seats are also available. Tickets for groups of 10+ start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 312-977-1710. Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices and online. For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com