I LOVE LUCY National Tour Brings its Brand of Nostalgia to Boston
"I Love Lucy" Live on Stage
Staged & Directed by Rick Sparks; Adapted for the stage and with new material by Kim Flagg and Rick Sparks; Original episodes written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll, Jr.; Musical Director & Special Lyrics, Wayne Moore; Original Music Composer, Peitor Angell; Scenic Designer, Aaron Henderson; Lighting Designer, Chris Wojcieszyn; Costume Designers, Shon LeBlanc, Kelly Bailey; Sound Designer, Cricket S. Myers; Hair/Wig Designer, Diane Marinous; Makeup Designer, Desiree Falcon; Production Stage Manager, Sarah Hall
CAST: Sirena Irwin as Lucy Ricardo, Bill Mendieta as Ricky Ricardo, Kevin Remington as Fred Mertz, JoAnna Daniels as Ethel Mertz (Carolynne Warren as Ethel Mertz on press night); Sarah Elizabeth Combs, Gregory Franklin, Peter Kevoian, Jayme Lake, Carlos Martin, Tyler Milliron, Denise Moses, Cindy Sciacca, Jeffrey Christopher Todd, Mark Christopher Tracy, Tamara Zook
Performances through December 22 at Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston, MA, as part of the Lexus Broadway in Boston series; Box Office 1-800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayInBoston.com
The I Love Lucy show debuted in 1951, ran for six seasons on CBS television, and has lived on in syndication for more than half a century. If you've never seen one of those 181 black-and-white episodes starring the redoubtable redhead, then you must have been living under a rock in a very deep cave. While all of the original players have departed for the great Tropicana Club in the sky, the National Tour of "I Love Lucy" Live on Stage, the stage show adapted from the beloved program, dares to replicate "The Benefit" and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" in its Boston premiere at the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre as part of the Lexus Broadway in Boston series.
Live on Stage is formulated on the premise that it's 1952 and we are the studio audience attending the filming of a pair of shows. Whether you're a longtime fan or a newcomer to the antics of Mr. and Mrs. Ricky Ricardo, you'll have reasons to applaud the ersatz cast of Northampton native Sirena Irwin as Lucy, Bill Mendieta as Ricky, Kevin Remington as Fred Mertz, and Dorchester native Carolynne Warren (who filled in for regular JoAnna Daniels on press night) as Ethel Mertz. Mark Christopher Tracy is relaxed and energetic as Maury Jasper, the Desilu Playouse host for the live television taping. He leads a fine supporting ensemble, including Jeffrey Christopher Todd as the Stage Manager, and three men and three women who make up the Crystaltone Singers (Sarah Elizabeth Combs, Gregory Franklin, Jayme Lake, Carlos Martin, Cindy Sciacca, Tyler Milliron) who perform during set changes, and also play the characters and sing jingles in live commercials for familiar products, such as Brylcreem, Alka-Seltzer, and Chevrolet. Denise Moses and Tamara Zook help to warm up the audience before the show as "plants" who have come to Hollywood from the hinterlands to see their favorite star.
Even with the understudy going on as Ethel at the performance I attended, the camaraderie among the four principals was seamless. Warren deservedly received some extra decibels on the applause meter from the home town crowd. Remington was light on his feet when he got the chance to trip the light fantastic, but he lacked the appropriate gruffness expected from Fred. Irwin proves herself to be a good physical comedienne and, while she is no doppelganger, she looks the part, thanks to a spot-on replica wig by designer Diane Marinous and fabulous 50s fashions (costume designers Shon LeBlanc and Kelly Bailey). However, she is put in a thankless position because no one else can be Lucy. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but to imitate her only highlights the obvious imperfections. Irwin walks a fine line between imitation and innovation, some of which succeeds and some of which falls short. Her chemistry with Mendieta is genuine and their duets together are polished. His road to success is smoother because Ricky was not the top dog and Mendieta suggests his personality just enough. He also sings very well and does a spicy rendition of the iconic "Babalu" in front of the seven-piece band led by Wayne Moore.
Employing the studio audience framework is a clever conceit because the ancillary component of the nostalgic commercials works well and provides many of the most entertaining moments. The unknown members of the ensemble can be taken at their talented face values and appreciated without being compared to any icons. It's great to hear the theme song and have live musical accompaniment by crack musicians for a couple of flashy dance numbers (kudos to Milliron as King Katt Walsh for his Jitterbug with Irwin) and see familiar sets of the Ricardo living room and Ricky's nightclub (Scenic Designer Aaron Henderson). Chris Wojcieszyn's lighting design brings out the vibrant colors in the LeBlanc and Bailey evocative costumes.
There appears to be a trend, of late, to adapt movies to the stage, but a television adaptation is rare. The disappointment here is that the episodes that Kim Flagg and Director Rick Sparks chose to adapt are far from the funniest of the voluminous canon. They do feature Lucy's patented attempts to plot with Ethel to get into show business and everyone gets the opportunity to display their musical skills, but rather than being enhanced by going live, the episodes feel like 45s being played at 33 rpms. I Love Lucy has been named the "Best TV Show of All Time" and the "Greatest TV Comedy" by People Magazine - not a bad legacy. "I Love Lucy" Live on Stage is a labor of love and a fun tribute that endeavors to honor Lucy and her legend, but, to paraphrase Paul Simon, some things just look better in black and white.
Photo credit: JustinBarbin.com (Bill Mendieta with Chicago cast)