Watching “I Love Lucy Live on Stage” is the theatrical equivalent of eating the world’s most expertly prepared Jell-O salad, adorned with a massive helping of whipped cream.
By taking us “backstage” for the filming of two episodes of Lucille Ball’s TV show in the early 1950s, it perfectly re-creates a fantasy: For two hours, we enter a trouble-free period where Brylcreem-slick guys get the prettiest girls and everyone rides home in their massive Chevrolet sedans.
For just a few moments, I thought adapter-director Rick Sparks might have meant the whole thing as straight-faced satire, ribbing politicians and social engineers who promise to take us back to a dream world that never existed.
But I quickly realized we’re meant to take it straight: The faithful re-creations of two “Lucy” episodes (“The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined”), the corny period commercials and the urbane master of ceremonies place us in a comfy time capsule and whisk us away.
I can’t imagine how this sort of thing could be done better than it was Wednesday night at Knight Theater, partly because the leading actors on this national tour created these roles.
Bill Mendieta captures Desi Arnaz’s shoulder-shifting moves, thick Cuban accent and energetic vocals as Ricky Ricardo, the temperamental Cuban bandleader. (His renditions of “El Cumbanchero” and “Babalu” really cook.) Mark Christopher Tracy twinkles but doesn’t cloy as Maury Jasper, unflappable host of Desilu Playhouse and the man who oversees comic bits in the breaks before and during the two episodes.
Sirena Irwin earns her final bow: She has to perform Lucy Ricardo’s physical bits (including a befuddled jitterbug to “Stompin’ at the Savoy”) not only with comic grace, but in exactly the manner Lucille Ball would have done them. She, too, nails the voice and timing, down to the braying laugh and wailing faux tears.
Kevin Remington and Joanna Daniels support them well as William Frawley and Vivian Vance – who play Fred and Ethel Mertz on “I Love Lucy” – but get few opportunities to shine, like the real Frawley and Vance. (It’s no surprise to hear, I expect, that Ball insisted Vance stay 15 pounds overweight, so she didn’t impinge on Ball’s glamor.)
The two “Lucy” episodes rely on jokes like this one:
Ethel, seeking talent for a charity benefit: “My women’s club wants Ricky.”
Lucy: “I’d be glad to let you have him, but I’m not through with him yet.”
Yet the pacing never lets us down, from Jasper’s interactions with audience members – some real, some planted – to the scenes of the show being shot, interrupted briefly for a “behind-the-scenes” moment where the stars forget lines.
Nostalgic folks will smile at song interludes (“Wheel of Fortune,” “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”) and dancing commercials, including one set to the elegant “Holiday for Strings.”
And the production faithfully re-creates the glossy look of the 1950s, at least as seen on TV. (For one thing, every person on stage is white.) If you long to escape again to that imaginary place, this is the way to go.
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