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BWW Reviews: Talented I LOVE LUCY - LIVE ON STAGE Cast Shines Despite Script's Missteps

America first met Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on October 15, 1951, when I Love Lucy's pilot episode premiered on CBS. The sitcom was brimming with talent, both in front of and behind the cameras (Lucy pioneered multi-camera techniques now commonplace in television production), and the cast won the hearts of its audience with humor, wit, and undeniable charm. Lucy's popularity continues even today, as the show thrives in reruns and endures as an icon of popular culture. Indeed, more than 60 years after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz became household names, fans voted I Love Lucy "the best television show of all time" in a 2012 ABC News/People Magazine survey.

Recreating that "Desilu" magic for theatrical audiences in I Love Lucy: Live on Stage, then, would seem like a sure bet. Lucy: Live is a solid, engaging concept, and though there are some missteps along the way, for the most part, the production succeeds. This show-within-a-show transports twenty-first-century theatergoers back in time to witness a live filming of two classic I Love Lucy episodes, "The Benefit" and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined." The "you-are-there" quality of the production is evident even before the curtain goes up, with a soundstage-style lighting deck overhanging the set pieces, a bright-red applause sign suspended midair, and two 35mm film cameras perched on stage. As cast members change costumes and assistants dress sets between scenes, the in-house Desilu "Crystaltone Singers" croon and twirl their way through vintage commercial spots for Brylcreem, Halo Shampoo, and Mr. Clean.

The show's production values are entirely top-notch. Lucy: Live boasts gorgeous costumes by Shon LeBlanc and Kelly Bailey, and a fun, versatile set design by Aaron Henderson. David George's lighting work captures the look and feel of a live television show taping while also providing natural segues between scenes. But where Lucy: Live truly shines is in its remarkably talented cast.

Thea Brooks faces the daunting task of filling Lucille Ball's shoes each night on stage. Bringing Hollywood's most beloved redhead to life is no mean feat, but Brooks skillfully captures the twinkle and daffy mischievousness of spirit that makes Lucy so adored by generations of fans. Brooks emulates Lucy's mannerisms with a spunkiness that keeps her portrayal lighthearted and authentic, and her skills for physical comedy are put to great use as the episodes play out, most especially in Lucy's jitterbug scenes (with the hilarious Richard Strimer as King Kat Walsh).

Then there's Euriamis Losada as Ricky, and does he ever knock it out of the park with his performance. He has Ricky's vocal inflection perfected so well, you may find yourself looking around the theater for Desi Arnaz. Losada is also spot-on in his portrayal of both Ricky's effortless showmanship and the longsuffering exasperation that makes the Lucy/Desi partnership so much fun to watch. On top of that, Losada delivers incredible vocal performances with a deep, rich tone; he stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, even on a stage already packed full of indisputably first-rate singers. Losada's performance of Desi's signature "Babalu" is simply show stopping.

Kevin Remington and Lori Hammel round out the featured performers as Fred and Ethel Mertz. Remington does justice to Fred's signature snarky, dry delivery, while Hammel fittingly depicts Ethel as both eager and incredulous when faced with Lucy's most madcap schemes. The Crystaltone Singers are each and all quality performers; standouts include Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Dinah Beach ("See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet") and Denise Moses as the singing-and-dancing Alka-Seltzer tablet, Speedy.

Where I Love Lucy: Live on Stage falters - and notably so - is in the production's overall momentum. The focus of Lucy: Live should be the Lucy cast; instead, the show squanders energies on establishing time and place through secondary characters. The performance stumbles right out of the gate, surrendering nearly 20 minutes of show time to an overlong audience warmup by Desilu Playhouse emcee, Maury Jasper (Mark Christopher Tracy). This "gosh-and-golly" routine, complete with an in-costume "plant" seated in the orchestra section, becomes as wearying as a used-car salesman's pitch and is overloaded with as many 1950s "nudge, nudge, wink" references as humanly possible.

Other between-scenes segments are used to explain industry "inside secrets," such as retakes after flubbed lines and how insert shots work; these pieces are interesting, but are too numerous and often run too long. Lucy: Live even holds an audience-participation-style quiz show rather than breaking for intermission; the production would have been better served with the interval, as what should be filler content again saps the show's energy and overtakes the main attraction.

I Love Lucy: Live on Stage plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, March 1, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $28-$60; group orders (15 or more) may be placed by calling (401) 574-3162.

Photo by Justin Namon


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