In the classic television sitcom I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball starred as Lucy Ricardo, a star-struck housewife with modest-to-zero talent but great heaps of ambition. I Love Lucy – Live On Stage is a show with modest-to-impressive talent and zero ambition.
This touring production out of L.A. puts us in Hollywood’s Desilu studios in 1952, where we’re the live audience for a back-to-back filming (not taping, this was pre-videotape) of two episodes in the series. Between the painstaking recreations of said episodes, we’re entertained by a jovial MC and a grinning troupe called the Crystaltone Singers, who regale us with advertising jingles and a medley of popular songs from the day.
And that’s pretty much it.
If you come to the show expecting a glimpse into the backstage life of one of America’s original TV icons, a taste of the giant egos and human frailties behind a beloved domestic comedy, then you’ve been watching too many Larry Sanders reruns. What we get are four actors who do no less – and no more – than sedulously impersonate Ball and her co-stars in their TV roles.
If that’s all you want, you can’t ask for better than these performers. Sirena Irwin, especially, is uncannily convincing as Lucy. The actress – until now best known as one of the voices on SpongeBob SquarePants – not only looks exactly like the flame-haired comedienne, she also mimics perfectly all of Ball’s signature ticks and shtick. When she opens her mouth, like a lipstick-rimmed cavern, to emit one of Lucy’s show-stopping wails, a torrent of memories from Lucy episodes past will flood your brain.
A suave Bill Mendieta is also spot-on as Ball’s real-life and small-screen husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, a.k.a. Ricky Ricardo. When he isn’t playing her serious-minded foil, he gives a lusty rendition of his theme song, Babalu, backed by his seven-man orchestra.
Kevin Remington and Joanna Daniels are no less convincing as ex-vaudevillian couple Fred and Ethel Mertz, the Ricardos’s landlords-cum-best friends. Close your eyes when Daniels speaks and you’d swear you were hearing the flat midwestern tones of Vivian Vance, who played Etheland went on to be Ball’s sidekick in her 1960s sitcom, The Lucy Show. Remington accurately replicates both the wry asides and expansive waistline of Fred, memorably portrayed by veteran actor William Frawley.
There’s a point at the beginning of the second episode, Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined, where Daniels’s Vance repeatedly flubs a line and Remington’s Frawley jokes about heading out to the bar. It’s the closest we get to any hint of the stars’ off-camera personalities. Frawley, as it happened, was a notorious alcoholic who had to sign a contract agreeing not to drink while shooting the series.
I thought about that as I watched this show. And about how Frawley and Vance reportedly hated each other.
I also remembered how Richard Burton, who guest-starred on The Lucy Show, describes Ball in his diaries as “a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour.”
I’m not saying the show should explore all those dark corners, but it would be nice if it offered a little substance and context.
The whole shebang is strung together by the anodyne patter of Maury the MC played with pleasant Eisenhower-era blandness by Mark Christopher Tracy. He also presides over some painfully unfunny sequences involving obnoxious “audience members” that would make even the original Lucy scriptwriters cringe.
Before coming to Toronto, I Love Lucy – Live On Stage played a gig at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. That’s where this sort of undemanding entertainment belongs– resorts and retirement communities. I don’t know why Mirvish Productions thought it would fly at the Royal Alex. To quote Ricky Ricardo, somebody has some ’splainin’ to do.