The iconic TV show I Love Lucy, which ran for six seasons from 1951 to 1957, broke so much ground that it’s hard to believe there was anything left to stand on. It was the first popular TV show featuring a bi-racial couple as lead characters and the first show to use the word “pregnant.”
It pioneered the multicamera shooting technique and featured one of the first female lead writers on TV, Madelyn Pugh Davis, whose on-set chair was labeled “girl writer.”
But the biggest mark it made was on the art of comedy.
“It should be homework for all actors, no matter if you’re in comedy or not,” says Sirena Irwin, who plays Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy Live on Stage, opening Tuesday for a week’s run at Bass Hall. “These people [Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley] really set the tone for what comic timing is.”
Actually, Irwin plays Lucy Ricardo, the character Ball played, as this show is a recreation of two well-known episodes of I Love Lucy. The idea is that the audience experiences what the studio audience would have been privy to in the 1950s, as the cast and crew presented these episodes to be filmed.
Keep in mind that you won’t see some of the show’s most iconic moments, such as the “Vitameatavegamin,” grape-stomping, loving cup or eggs-in-Lucy’s-pants episodes. The two episodes recreated here are “The Benefit” (1952), in which Ricky agrees to perform at Ethel’s benefit and sings a duet with Lucy; and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined” (1953), in which Lucy gets some eye drops from the optometrist that do her no favors for the small part she has dancing on Ricky’s show.
Irwin says the creators of I Love Lucy Live on Stage had certain criteria for picking entire episodes to reproduce for this show: all four major characters had to be involved, no Little Ricky, some kind of song/dance element, and no travel to Hollywood, Connecticut or Italy.
“I’ve heard [the producers] say that in some of the iconic episodes, often it’s not the whole episode that’s funny, it’s funny bits,” Irwin says.
Getting to know Lucy
Irwin, along with Bill Mendieta as Ricky Ricardo, have been with the show since its six-month stints each in Los Angeles and Chicago, beginning in 2011. After those hit runs, the tour began in July 2013. Joanna Daniels, who plays Ethel Mertz, came on board in Chicago; and Kevin Remington as Fred Mertz, began with this tour.
Surprisingly, although Irwin suggests a diet of I Love Lucy as actor training, she came to the show late in the game. Her parents didn’t watch TV, and she didn’t catch up on the episodes during college, or as a sketch/improv comedy performer, or as a voice-over actress — her biggest gig to date has been SpongeBob SquarePants for 14 years.
She was introduced to I Love Lucy when she began to prepare for this audition. Luckily, she knew actress Paula Stewart, who played the younger sister of the character Lucille Ball played in the 1960 musical Wildcat, Lucy’s only appearance on Broadway. Stewart told Irwin that she reminded her of Lucy and lent her her VHS collection of the TV series.
“I had this idea of who Lucy was, and my idea was this zany, wacky housewife,” Irwin says. “In becoming more familiar with it [the show] it became clear to me that what she did so beautifully was that she kept it really grounded. I feel like she’s really rooted and everything she does is so truthful, and that’s why we laugh. She was an incredible expert and doing that over-the-top stuff and having it ring as authentic.
“That has been a huge gift in watching her.”
Therein lies the trick in playing these characters who are playing their characters in a recreation of the two episodes. Rick Sparks, who directs the show and adapted it for the stage along with Kim Flagg, was adamant that the actors not give over to the urge to impersonate.
“He said ‘I really want you to catch the essence of these characters … I don’t want mimicry,’ ” Irwin says.
“For us it is about finding a way to make it our own but also to be these characters that are recognizable and live so deeply in the hearts of so many,” she adds. “We are still there with that particular audience that changes every night, and it still has to be organic or it won’t be funny.”
And the funny is what ultimately keeps I Love Lucy one of the most beloved TV shows of all time, passed down from generation to generation on a level only reserved for similarly iconic moments of 20th-century American pop culture, like The Wizard of Oz and Beatles records.
“We’ve had three generations come to the show, and sometimes dress up,” Irwin says. “We’ve heard from many people that seeing the show was an emotional experience because it brought back a memory of watching the show with a loved one.”
That’s the magic of great comedy, something Lucy and the gang transformed for generations of future writers and performers.