Chicago Theater Review: I LOVE LUCY, LIVE ON STAGE (Broadway Playhouse)

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by Dan Zeff on September 20, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The American novelist Peter De Vries once wrote that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Maybe he would have modified his observation after seeing I Love Lucy, Live on Stage at the Broadway Playhouse. The I Love Lucy TV sitcom of the 1950’s clearly held affectionate memories for Los Angeles, where the show originated with success (see Stage and Cinema’s review here); now the show’s producers are hoping for similar acceptance in America’s heartland. The show recreates the taping of two episodes from 1952, with the theater audience serving as the studio audience at Los Angeles’ Desilu Playhouse. The live show certainly goes the extra mile to re-create the ambience of the original I Love Lucy comedies, but it all comes down to how much the spectator wants to revisit Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz doing their broad comic shtick.

The production imports Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendieta from California to reprise their roles as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Irwin has the look, voice and mannerisms of Lucy; Mendieta likewise sounds like Ricky, with his Cuban accent, fractured English, and belting singing voice; he lacks Arnaz’s physical bulk but everything else is in place and his Desi Arnaz signature Latin number “Babalu” is a showstopper (Alan Bukowiecki leads an outstanding seven-piece orchestra that sounds twice as large). I was more impressed with their impersonations than I was with the actual material of the show. Irwin, with her carrot top hair and wide mouth, nails the redhead down to the body-shaking laugh and the off-key singing. She is a gifted physical comic and carries the event, just like the original did back in the 1950’s.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of I Love Lucy, Live on Stage at Broadway Playhouse in Chicago

The leads receive capable support from a dozen Chicagoland performers, led by portly Curtis Pettyjohn as Fred Mertz and Joanna Daniels as his wife Ethel; both must have arduously studied Lucy” originals William Frawley and Vivian Vance, because they are spot-on vocally, and in Pettyjohn’s case, physically. The always dependable Ed Kross is the master of ceremonies who warms up the studio audience and keeps things moving during set changes. The rest of the cast plays both the actors in episodes and the Crystaltone Singers who belt out the live studio commercials with toothy high spirits. The nostalgia really kicks in with those familiar Alka Selzer and Chevrolet ditties, and the Brylcreme commercial stimulated the audience to spontaneously sing along with the singers on stage.

The show gives us a great deal of Lucy and Ricky and very little of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, which is too bad. Some comparison and contrast between the fictional characters and real life stars would have enriched the show, but also extended the running time and maybe altered the production into a presentation beyond what the producers believed would work. The producers are clearly relying on Chicagoland audiences to bring their fond memories of the TV show and its characters into the theater with them, and they don’t want real life to intrude, like the marital problems between Ball and Arnaz and the backstage friction between Vance and Frawley.

The show is decked out in a first class production: Shon LeBlanc’s costumes are very 1950’s, especially the dresses with their billowing skirts; Aaron Henderson’s set vaguely replicates a TV studio of the day; Noah Mitz designed the lighting, Cricket Myers the sound, and most pivotal of all, Diane Martinous designed the 50’s hairstyles and wigs.

I Love Lucy emerged during the early days of television and there is an innocence to the comedy that is very much of the period. One wonders how I Love Lucy would fare in our more sophisticated, and darker, times. The directing by Rick Sparks caters to that innocence, maybe to the point of patronizing, especially in the performance of the TV commercials by the we-are-dying-to-please Crystaltone Singers. The audience is invited to laugh tolerantly at all the nonsense on the stage with an air of superiority.

Unfortunately, the flow of the TV taping is interrupted by some lame comedy by a couple of actresses planted in the audience. There is also a mock trivia contest on stage dealing with I Love Lucy lore that is mostly a waste of time.

I Love Lucy, Live on Stage is intended to be a good-time show, and most members of the first night audience obviously were enjoying themselves, though a large percentage of the spectators were born after the 1950’s. There must be something universal in its standard sitcom plot about a ditzy wife creating daily problems for her annoyed but loving husband. Better TV comedies were to follow (The Cosby Show, All in the Family), but I Love Lucy got there first. The live show cashes in on its appeal, but honorably. This is no take-the-money-and-run rip-off. I Love Lucy wasn’t great art but it was great pop culture and its unending life in reruns validates its central place as enduring Americana. In that spirit, the stage version offers much pleasure.

photos by Ed Krieger

I Love Lucy, Live on Stage
The Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place
ends on November 11, 2012 EXTENDED to March 17, 2013
for tickets, call 800 775 2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago

{ 1 comment }

Terri Wood October 2, 2012 at 8:55 pm

We saw the play while visiting Chicago. I was disappointed that the posters were not for sale that night. Can you please help me locate one? Thanks!

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