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Theater Review: ‘I Love Lucy: Live On Stage’

The good old days return

By Alan Bresloff Created: September 24, 2012 Last Updated: September 24, 2012
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(L–R) Gregory Franklin, Bill Mendieta, Sirena Irwin, Curtis Pettyjohn, and Joanna Daniels star in “I Love Lucy: Live On Stage.” (Courtesy of Broadway In Chicago)

(L–R) Gregory Franklin, Bill Mendieta, Sirena Irwin, Curtis Pettyjohn, and Joanna Daniels star in “I Love Lucy: Live On Stage.” (Courtesy of Broadway In Chicago)

CHICAGO—Ah, nostalgia! Some of us have fond memories of the early days of television and the first sitcoms we viewed.

I am going back more than a few years now—back to the days when TV shows were filmed in a studio with a live audience, in black and white; and no announcements were made to the audience about turning off their cell phones (as there were no such things). 

The theater staff did have to tell people not to take pictures, but the size of the cameras pretty much gave offenders away. 

The year is 1952. We are at The Desilu Studios in California, watching our TV favorites Desi Arnaz who played Ricky Ricardo (acted with just the right Cuban flavor by Bill Mendieta), and Lucille Ball who played Lucy Ricardo (Sirena Irwin truly studied the late, great Ms. Ball as she has every step down to perfection). 

We have Fred and Ethel Mertz, too, the Ricardos’s landlords and best friends (and straight man and woman) for the stars’ comedy. Joanna Daniels does a lovely turn as Ethel, but doesn’t seem quite as natural as the other players; and Curtis Pettyjohn not only looks like Bill Frawley who played Fred in the original series, but his movements and voice make you recall some of Frawley’s great one liners.

The rest of the cast are energetic performers who take on a myriad of roles, doing commercials (Brylcreem, Alka-Seltzer, and many more oldies) and dancing to a few of the top tunes of the day. These numbers come during set and costume changes.

These people work very hard: Ashley Braxton, Lauren Creel, Gregory Franklin, Karl Hamilton, George Keating, Debbie Laumand-Blanc, Rebecca Prescott, Sara Sevigny (another strong comic), and Richard Strimer (who does a wonderful jitterbug with Ms. Irwin.) 

The show is made up of two actual episodes, “The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” to which director/co-adaptor Rick Sparks and co-adaptor/producer Kim Flagg have added new material. Staff writers Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll Jr.—names that were well known in the industry in those days—originally wrote both episodes.

While there is a lot of humor in these episodes, they cannot be compared to shows today; times were simpler, and we didn’t expect as much on our large screen 21-inch black-and-white set. 

What makes this show fun, then, is the behind-the-scenes look we get. A host, Maury Jasper (deftly handled by local actor Ed Kross, who acted as host on the radio show earlier in the year) works and speaks with the audience, explaining what will take place. 

There is even a contest on “Lucy” between two audience members. One is actually an audience member and the other is planted, but it is a funny scene, nonetheless. 

The dynamic cast of “I Love Lucy: Live On Stage” fill in numbers between set and costumes changes. (Courtesy of Broadway In Chicago)

The dynamic cast of “I Love Lucy: Live On Stage” fill in numbers between set and costumes changes. (Courtesy of Broadway In Chicago)

The set is designed to be a television studio with what appears to be complete copies of the sets on the show: the couple’s apartment and Ricky’s Tropicana Nightclub. The apartment is much more realistic than the club. 

While this is not a show for everyone, those who enjoy nostalgia will find joy in recalling those simpler times, when Lucy and Rickey were invited into our homes each week, and we prepared ourselves in the living room. (We didn’t have dens or family rooms back then). If we came home late, a snack table was placed in front of our chairs, so we did not miss a second. 

Yes, we had to sit and watch because we could not record the show or wait until it was available on pay-per-view or video-on-demand. Even though filmed and cut, when it was on, it was on. 

While this show requires no thinking, it does require a sense of humor, and as hokey as it is, you will find it amusing and capable of providing the diversion you might be seeking. It is a chance to get away from the stress of the day and recall the good old days. 

“I Love Lucy: Live On Stage”
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place
175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago
Reservations: 1-800-775-2000, or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Closes: Nov. 11 

Alan Bresloff writes about theater in and around the Chicago area.

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