BWW Interviews: Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendieta talk I Love Lucy Live! in Toronto
I Love Lucy Live takes the stage in Toronto next week - and marks the first time these iconic characters have been tackled live on stage. The foursome you know and love - Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel, comes to life at The Royal Alex Theatre (which will become the Desilu Playhouse soundstage) and they're backed by the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra and the Crystaltone Singers.
BWW sat down to talk with Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendieta who have been touring the United States playing the iconic Lucy and Ricky. They discuss the challenges associated with tackling such beloved roles, the unique comedy needed for 'Lucy' and why this is a show that is truly universal.
First off, congratulations on I Love Lucy Live and bringing the show to Toronto! Have either of you performed in Toronto before?
SI: No, I haven't. I am so looking forward to it! I have heard wonderful things about Toronto.
BM: My first time in Canada was last week for our press meet and greet.
What are you most looking forward to about the city?
SI: I'm looking forward to exploring Toronto by bike! I just bought one in Buffalo that's from the early 1960's - 3 speeds - so you know I'm rolling in style! By bike or foot is really how I most enjoy exploring a city - getting to know the little enclaves, discovering the local music and art scenes - the interesting restaurants and vintage shops. I'm really looking forward to getting to know Toronto. And I would love suggestions from locals! People can find me on twitter - @sirena_Irwin I know I must see the David Bowie exhibition at AGO and I hope I get to catch a performance from Tafelmusik. My mother, Margaret Irwin-Brandon, was the conductor of a Baroque Orchestra (playing on period instruments) in Western Massachusetts for 14 years. Needless to say, I have a deep love and appreciation for Baroque music.
BM: Toronto is a beautiful city. I look forward to exploring it--walking around neighborhoods, discovering nice places to eat, and getting to know a bit of the culture of Canada. I am looking forward to a trip up to the top of the CN Tower and catching a Raptors game.
Have you found the audience reaction differs much as you travel across the country? Or is 'Lucy' truly universal?
SI: Lucy is absolutely universal - and it's probably no surprise to hear that the show and, of course, the incredible Lucille Ball are deeply loved by people all across North America and beyond. However I have found it interesting that there are indeed regional responses that differ ever so slightly. Sometimes, where we have gotten big laughs, they lessen a bit, and where we were getting titters, we start getting big laughs. I haven't gotten to the bottom of it - but I find it fascinating.
BM: I would say that the humor and joy of what the show brings is universal. I feel that once an audience is involved for the ride, they can go back in time and enjoy the journey of seeing this show live like it was 1952.
I Love Lucy was applauded for its unique and original use of comedy, with Lucille Ball being one of America's first grand comediennes. What's it like having to tackle that kind of material and did either of you have an extensive background in comedy?
SI: It is both terrifying and extraordinarily exciting to have the opportunity to get to do this incredible material! We both feel it is a great honor to do these roles and we don't take lightly the responsibility of bringing Lucy and Ricky Ricardo to life. Our audiences have a great deal of love for the show - for these characters. "I Love Lucy" has brought a great deal of joy to people around the globe and it is our job to keep that love - that humor - that joy - alive and thriving in our production of "I Love Lucy Live On Stage."
My career has consisted primarily of comedic ventures. I've been in multiple sketch/improv groups - studied with the groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and have done lots of physical comedy in theatre productions, TV, film and as a voice-over actor (on Spongebob Squarepants and Stan Lee's Stripperella, etc.).
BM: To tackle this kind of material is an honor and a wonderful challenge. It is a great lesson in comedy and classic sitcom style.
I have a varied background performing many styles of theatre--drama and comedy, both modern and classic, as well as improv. I've also directed comedy. And with this experience came an understanding for comedy and the structure and technique to handle it, but the true test is the audience.
How much of your own 'stamp' do you get to put on the character?
SI: Lucy Ricardo needs to be Lucy Ricardo. And, of course, I'm not Lucille Ball. Rick Sparks, our director, was clear with us from the beginning that he wasn't looking for impersonations - but for our own take on the characters. Lucy Ricardo has all kinds of little things she does that Lucille Ball created that, in my opinion, must be brought into the performance - her signature cry - her "eeeeew" (described by the writers of "I Love Lucy" as 'the spider') & her grounded physicality - that fluctuates between sophisticated woman and demanding child. All of that is Lucy Ricardo. AND, also, I must live in the moment - be responding authentically given the circumstances that the incredible writers (Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr., and Jess Openheimer) have given Lucy. So what the audiences will see is Lucy Ricardo as interpreted by Sirena Irwin.
BM: I feel there is a balance in approaching these roles. There are expectations that the world has on these characters as we've grown up watching them. My intentions were to honor those expectations and still be true to myself. My job was to get the essence of this character and be true in those moments.
And how do you make sure you embody them instead of 'characterize' them?
SI: I believe, as stated above, by living in the moment. By not pushing - but allowing. This, of course, AFTER having done all the necessary homework. Of which there is ample.
BM: For me, I make sure I am connecting with Sirena and the other actors on stage and not going through motions. There is the core of Ricky which wants to be a success in America the only way he knows how, as a singer and bandleader. He wants that American dream - to be a success in his chosen field and have a happy home life with his beautiful American wife. But much of the humor is that the American wife wants to get into the act. He is very intelligent and is the anchor of the family. What holds it all together is his love and passion for Lucy.
I understand there's a live orchestra that plays during the show, can you tell us a bit about that?
SI: It's very exciting! They are all tremendous musicians and they add so much to the show. I know Bill will have a lot to say on this subject so I'll leave it at that.
BM: We are very fortunate to have seven wonderful musicians who are the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra in our show. Though this is considered a play with music as opposed to a musical, our orchestra is integral to this show and I enjoy interacting with them as their band leader in those scenes and numbers.
What kind of music can we expect to hear?
SI: You'll hear classic songs of the era - there's a medley of popular songs from 1952 in the middle of the show performed by our Crystaltone Singers - there are commercial jingles from the era - and a couple of thrilling numbers performed by Ricky (Bill) and the band.
BM: The show has popular music from the 1950s, classic commercial jingles sung by our 'Crystaltone Singers' and well-known songs from the show.
What has been the biggest challenge associated with doing this show?
SI: For me it was getting to know and understand the character of Lucy Ricardo. I essentially came to this role with no real knowledge of the show - shame on me, I know! So, when I was cast - I had a lot of work to do. I needed to know this character inside and out - and I wanted to know about the experience of bringing "I Love Lucy" to life so I did a lot of reading (after 300+ shows I am STILL reading and learning new things on a daily basis) - a lot of watching (still watching, too!) - and a lot of working on dissecting the character and then inhabiting her. It has been an incredible experience - one I am eternally grateful to have had - the ultimate comedy education.
BM: Since this is the first time the show is being done live, the biggest challenge is that we know we will be under the microscope. We knew that from the first day we were cast and we carry that challenge eight times a week. Most everyone knows the show and these episodes though we have made subtle tweaks. Fans may have some reservations as to what will we do to it. People love and revere these characters and we know that. Our director Rick Sparks has always said this is a Valentine to the show and classic TV.
People might think this show only appeals to an older audience - can you give us the number one reason you would encourage a generation who (sadly) may not know the I Love Lucy show to come out and see it?
SI: It's a funny show! Who doesn't like to laugh? Who doesn't want to watch the antics of 4 friends as they make trouble and then try to extract themselves from it? This is a fun show whether you know "I Love Lucy" or not. It's funny. It's full of heart. And, for those with a knowledge of the original, it's touching!
BM: I think this show appeals to all ages. I Love Lucy is still on the air today and many young people we meet tell us it is their favorite show. For those who haven't been exposed to it, and we've come across them, I believe it gives a fun lesson on a time when television was young and I LOVE LUCY was a groundbreaker for what is now standard in Hollywood. The scripts are well-written and it's funny. Love is the core of the show - the love between Lucy and Ricky as well as for their friends--and that can make you smile.
When and Where?
I Love Lucy Live!
The Royal Alex Theatre
On stage Oct 15th - Nov 3rd.
Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at www.mirvish.com