"I Love Lucy" Live On Stage Is Time Travel At Its Best

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"I Love Lucy" Live on Stage, at the Peabody Opera House April 17-19

The much-beloved television series I Love Lucy ended in 1957, nearly 20 years before my time. Thanks to the pioneering ways of stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, generation after generation has laughed at the zany antics of “America’s Favorite Redhead.” In the early days of television, most shows were broadcast live in their time zone and as “kinescopes” in other regions—a vastly inferior method that used a television camera to record the image from a television set as the show aired (not unlike people who record TV clips with their cell phones and post them on YouTube today). Desi and Lucille used a three-camera shoot and shot everything on 35mm film so that clean prints could be shown across America. In the show’s second season, Lucille became pregnant and Desi and show producer Jess Oppenheimer decided to rebroadcast the best-received episodes from the previous season, and the ratings were much higher than expected. They had just invented the rerun.

Rick Sparks and Kim Flagg have crafted a wonderful “rerun” of their own with “I Love Lucy” Live on Stage, a gorgeous trip back through time to the Desilu Productions Playhouse where the original series was filmed before a live audience (in this case transplanted from Hollywood to The Peabody Opera House in St. Louis). Mark Christopher Tracy plays Desilu Playhouse host Maury Jasper, who warms up the crowd, introduces the stars and supporting cast, and often takes part in the “live” commercials during shooting breaks. His warm personality helped to draw the audience in, forgetting their 21st century worries and putting us all in that 1952 frame of mind. Now that we’d been transported back in time, it was time to start filming the first of two I Love Lucy episodes.

 In “The Benefit,” originally shot in November of 1951 but aired in January 1952, Lucy (Thea Brooks) tries to get husband Ricky Ricardo (Euriamis Losada) to perform at a benefit being put on by neighbor Ethel Mertz’s (Lori Hammel) Ladies Club. Lucy promises to deliver Ricky as long as she can be in the show too. With her famously bad singing, that’s no easy sell. Ricky comes up with “the only song that fits her voice” and the only thing she gets to sing in it is the “auf” in “auf wiedersehen.” Lucy refuses to continue unless Ricky finds a different song, leaving Ricky to call the whole thing off. The next day, when Ethel comes by to show off the new signs for the benefit, Lucy says she’ll go on, but she can’t dance without a partner and can’t sing…obviously.  Ethel’s husband Fred (Kevin Remington) shows up to deliver a new song and comedy number and tells the ladies that Ricky will meet them at the benefit with costumes. Lucy soon realizes that Ricky has kept all of the punch lines for the comedy bit for himself. During the performance, she turns the tables on him, and his reactions to being one-upped make the whole thing that much more hilarious.

Throughout the episode the cameras would go dark and the Crystaltone Singers would hit the stage to perform the commercials we’d see if we were watching the show from the comfort of our Davenports at home. Sara Jayne Blackmore, Sarah Elizabeth Combs, Gregory Franklin, Carlos Martin, Cindy Sciacca and Richard Strimer comprise are the six-person ensemble, and Jody Madaras, Denise Moses and Kami Seymour rotate through regularly as show hands and commercial characters such as “Speedy, the Alka-Seltzer mascot.

The stage is reset for the second taping, an Episode called “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” which originally aired in December of 1953. Ricky has been suffering from headaches, and Lucy implores him to see the doctor. William Parker (Gregory Franklin), an old friend of Ricky’s stops by the Tropicana to say hello and Ricky invites him over for dinner. The Mertzes quickly realize that Mr. Parker is a big shot on Broadway and Lucy, Fred and Ethel concoct a scheme to show off their talents for Ricky’s friend. Fred and Ethel are encouraged to play 20s flappers, and Lucy is asked to dance the Jitterbug, which she doesn’t know how to do. She hires a dancing coach, beatnik hipster King Katt Walsh (Richard Strimer), to teach her. All is going well until Lucy finally gets Ricky to the doctor’s office. The doctor (Carlos Martin) examines Ricky’s eyes and declares them to be perfectly normal. His headaches are just from stress and fatigue. Lucy’s eyes, on the other hand, aren’t quite so sharp. He puts some eye drops in each eye to dilate them, but the timing couldn’t be worse as she has to perform in front of a live audience at the Tropicana for Mr. Parker with terribly blurry vision. The results are exactly the kind of comedy that made I Love Lucy what many consider the best television show of all time.

I’m not old enough to have seen I Love Lucy when it originally aired, but it’s been syndicated and rerun for decades. I remember watching it on a little black and white television as a kid, not much different than anyone else who’d seen it when it was new. The Watergate year were a much different time than the post-WWII Truman and Eisenhower years, but funny is funny, and Lucille Ball is still rightfully regarded as one of the funniest women in the history of show business. I found the staged commercials to be wonderfully charming, especially the Brylcreem hair product spot. The actors are a scream, especially Thea Brooks, who had Lucille Ball’s mannerisms down pat. Euriamis Losada was charming in the role of Ricky/Desi and the duo made for a convincing simulation of the real thing. The entire cast was delightful, but Denise Moses deserves a special mention for her role as Birdie Mae Flagg, a “planted” audience member who banters easily with the show’s host. Mark Christopher Tracy is a natural host, quick on his feet to encourage and joke with a real member of the audience, Florissant homemaker Linda, who goes one-on-one with Birdie Mae in a quick I Love Lucy trivia contest. If I’d have loaded up the wife and our luggage in my shiny Chevrolet and journeyed out to Hollywood from St. Louis, this is exactly what I’d have hoped to see.    

“I Love Lucy” Live on Stage is only in town through April 19, I’m sad to say. I think it would do well here in a longer run, and I hope it comes back soon. If you missed it on Friday, there are two shows both Saturday (2:00 pm and 8:00 pm) and Sunday (1:00 pm and 6:30 pm) at the Peabody Opera House. If you were ever a fan of I Love Lucy, go see it. If you’re too young to know anything about Lucille Ball or the show, definitely go see it. You’ll be glad you did.

(Psst…mum’s the word, pal o’ mine, but you can find the original episodes performed in this show on YouTube easily enough. Check ‘em out, daddy-o, and see how they compare. If anyone asks, you didn’t hear about it from me. Blame it on King Katt Walsh.  But trust me, it’s a real gasser! Crazy!)

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0