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

by Lawrence Bommer on January 11, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

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THAT KINKY KINESCOPE

It’s a time trip that denies the original intent—a live taping of a dead T.V. series. The iconic archetype of the boob tube’s “golden age,” I Love Lucy wasn’t just the longest-running T.V. show—it set the standards and stories for domestic sitcoms until All in the Family changed the rules forever. Depending on your taste, the plots were suffocatingly or reassuringly consistent: Ditzy carrot-top Lucille Ball (happily not playing her smart showbiz self) wants to break into the big time epitomized by her Cuban bandleader hubbie Desi Arnez. But, as depicted in these episodes (“The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined”), this eternal hopeful is sadly unburdened by talent: Either she can’t sing or she can’t see. The result is a reassuring chaos that only Lucy could invite and only her fans enjoy. Happily, that means a lot of happy folks who are suddenly “present at the creation.”

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE Broadway Playhouse, Chicago

Rick Sparks’ period-perfect staging really is a time machine back to 1952, complete with commercial jingles (“See the USA in your Chevrolet!” and “Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya”), pre-poodle skirts, lumbering Desilu Playhouse cameras, the peppy-perky Cyrstaltone Singers, the couple’s well-appointed New York apartment, and the samba-sizzling Ricky Ricardo Orchestra, borrowed from the Tropicana Nightclub.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE Broadway Playhouse, Chicago

Presiding over this bustling soundstage, studio host Ed Kross is silky-smooth and archly sympathetic as he warms up an equally live audience at the Broadway Playhouse—and, with awesome pep and patience, instructs us in the art of applauding when the APPLAUSE sign goes on.

Since casting is more than half the battle with a celebrity recreation, mucho kudos go to Sparks for finding superb equivalents. These are our rubber-faced, glowingly inept redhead-airhead (Sirena Irwin), Lucy’s suave Latin-lover helpmate (Bill Mendieta), perfectly paired with the ubiquitous neighbors, bumbling Fred Mertz (Curtis Pettyjohn) and earth-mother/confidante Ethel (Joanna Daniels), eagerly proffering up good advice that no one heeds.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE Broadway Playhouse, Chicago

Except for a few intentional snafus, the episodes play like clockwork and, even 61 years later, generate reliable laughs. What’s necessarily missing here (because of copyright restrictions) is any off-camera byplay between real-life partners Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez (whose actual names are never uttered). But then it’s unlikely that these professional ever let their hair down in front of a live audience (unless it was in the script).

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE Broadway Playhouse, Chicago

All in all, I Love Lucy: Live on Stage is a surprisingly generous, detailed and even celebratory blast from the past (featuring a cast of 17!). For persons of a certain age (myself definitely included), it really rocked with recognition—the big difference, of course, being that we finally see it in color!  It’s neither condescending to early T.V., the stereotypical characters, or the adoring audience (shrewdly padded with a few delightful “plants”).  It’s as American as Alka Seltzer—for what that’s worth.  Long live Lucy…

photos by Ed Krieger, Hyra George, and Justin Barbin

I Love Lucy: Live on Stage
The Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place
scheduled to end on March 3, 2013 EXTENDED to April 7, 2013
for tickets, call 800 775 2000 or visit http://www.BroadwayInChicago.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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