FORT WORTH As with any long-running TV show, there supposedly was a lot of drama behind the scenes of what is arguably the best-loved sitcom ever, I Love Lucy. Like, William Frawley and Vivian Vance (Fred and Ethel) supposedly hated each other.
But I Love Lucy Live on Stage is, thankfully, not about all that.
It’s committed to the thing that keeps the show in a generation-spanning fan base: laughter.
Developed in California, the show made its Texas premiere at Bass Hall on Tuesday night and runs through Sunday. If opening night is any indication, this run should be a huge word-of-mouth hit for Performing Arts Fort Worth.
The setup is that we’re in a Hollywood TV studio in the 1950s, watching live tapings of two I Love Lucy episodes: “The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined.” What makes this production shine are not necessarily the performances from the four main actors — although they’re fantastic — but the peek into the bygone era of live studio audiences for a TV show.
As the host of Desilu Playhouse (Mark Christopher Tracy) tells us, you may have to adjust your 21-inch Philco.
Meaning, step back more than half a century, when such events would also have included live onstage advertisements for products such as Brylcreem, Chevrolet and a cleansing cream whose advantage is that it doesn’t set off a Geiger counter.
And there are other forms of entertainment, including the Crystaltone singers and — as if to remind us that entertainment before this was even more wholesome than we think of the 1950s now — a number from an operetta called The Pleasant Peasant, complete with pail-lugging maidens and a maypole. And throughout, the business part of show business is evident, as we see crew people, stage manager Gerald (Tyler Milliron) and even how they handle a “blooper” for live TV.
But the audience really came for Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel. Played respectively by Sirena Irwin, Bill Mendieta, Peter Kevoian (an understudy who played the role of Fred in the performance reviewed) and Joanna Daniels, they don’t disappoint. Although these four are really playing two characters, starting with Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Frawley and Vance, the emphasis is on the characters those actors played in the show, the ones that have endeared themselves to generations.
Mendieta evokes Ricardo best when he’s singing in the nightclub or, out of irritation, speaking rapid-fire Spanish to Lucy.
Kevoian probably sounds closest to his character, with that crotchety Fred voice, and Daniels nails the flightiness of Ethel, especially with that shameful “welllll” when she doesn’t want to admit what has really happened.
Irwin’s speaking voice isn’t exactly like Lucy’s (whose could be?), but the rhythms, inflections and mannerisms are all on point, as is the physical comedy timing. Lucy was most hysterical when singing way off key or using her rubbery face for a number of expressions, and Irwin has all that down to a science, but it still feels of the moment.
The two episodes they tape may not be the most memorable of the six-season series, but they give all four actors equal opportunities to shine and are definitely funny. If you’re not holding your side from laughter pangs during the final dance number in “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” then you might want to pay your own visit to the doc to make sure you’re not dead.
There is some harmless audience participation (speak up if you know your I Love Lucy trivia), but even those who aren’t singled out participate, in that their laughter propels the funniest of TV’s funniest.
With a cast and concept this good, the giggles, snorts and all-out howls won’t be hard to come by. Just like when you catch a rerun of any of the show’s episodes for the 167th time.