In the summer of 1984, my life consisted of very few things. Whiffle ball in the morning was one of those. Hours and hours of ripping our arms apart while we duct-taped another broken plastic ball to save money was a daily ritual.
In the afternoon, there were few compelling choices for television watching. So my friends and I had an order to our viewing habits. First, it was Chicago Cubs baseball. They played during the day because Wrigley Field had no lights, and WGN was a part of our basic cable package. Once the game ended, we moved on to our most important event of the day:
“I Love Lucy.”
My friend called our phenomena being “Lucy-pumped.” There was nothing more magical for a bunch of nine and 12-year-old kids than getting ourselves a healthy dose of the fabulous four – Lucy and Ricky, Fred and Ethel.
My pre-pubescent passion for Lucy was certainly influenced by my mother, who made me watch her favorite Lucy episodes the way I make my daughters listen non-stop to show tunes. Oh yes, I saw Vitameatavegamin, I saw the chocolate conveyer belt, and I saw the moment Lucy announces to Ricky at the club they are having a baby.
The best Lucy moment in my viewing history? When my mother insisted my very pregnant wife and I watch the episode where Ricky prepares for the exact moment his child arrives. “The time has come,” he says with an air of gusto. The birth of my mother’s first grandchild needed a serious Lucy and Ricky component, which seems to have paid off handsomely. Today, my daughters certainly get their Lucy fix at grandma’s house, all the while munching on a whole lot of unnecessary sugar.
SHN’s production of “I Love Lucy Live on Stage” is certainly a charming piece, one that creates plenty of nostalgia for the audience, who is made to believe they are actually in the Hollywood Desilu Playhouse, the place where Lucy and Ricky came into their 21-inch television sets.
The two episodes brought forth in this 90-minute tribute to 1950’s Americana are not some of the more household episodes of the show. Yet, they do a brilliant job of crafting the formulaic enterprise that followed many “I Love Lucy” episodes. Ricky crafts a solo plan, Lucy wiggles her way into the plan, and drag along the loyal and lovable landlords into the fray.
The four principals were certainly solid, led by the title character, played with delectable minutiae by Thea Brooks. It was all there – the way Lucy says “Eeewww,” the begging and the pleading with Ricky for a showbiz opportunity, and the comic showmanship that was the hallmark of Lucille Ball’s brilliance.
Cuban-born Euriamis Losada also came through solidly as Ricky, full of the little touches that made Ricky Ricardo quite charming. Whether it was his fumbling of English (“Nice to met you.”) or his command in leading Ricky’s signature moments at the club in some sharp versions of signature Arnaz hits “Babalu” and “El Cumbanchero,” Losada’s charm and good looks certainly served the character well.
The Mertz folk were simply solid. As Fred, Kevin Remington’s charming mannerisms as well his beltline that resides somewhere north of Canada were wonderfully truthful to gruff William Frawley’s original interpretation.
By far, the most skilled performer in the show was Lori Hammel, who was absolutely stunning as Ethel. I’ve always had a thing for Ethel. She was always so honest and true-blue in her outlook on life. While it was clear that Ball was the star, Vivian Vance’s theatre training and stage grace made her take on Ethel the perfect foil for Lucy’s foibles. Hammel embodied those details smartly.
Other actors certainly made effusive contributions. Mark Christopher Tracy, playing the Desilu playhouse host, contributed great pace to make the entire piece move. He was also joyous partaking in Lucy trivia with an audience member (which was my mother on this night). And other ensemble characters, led by jack-of-all trades Denise Moses and the jitterbug stylings of Richard Strimer did much to create an entire atmosphere of the 1950’s. Helping create that nostalgia brilliantly were costume designers Shon LeBlanc and Kelly Bailey, unified smartly by director Rick Sparks.
While the show is certainly heavy on those traits that made Lucy a household icon, a funny everywoman whose hijinks were short on thought but long on charm, the show functions more efficiently as a tribute to 1950’s era television. There are references to things like davenports and products like Chevrolet and Brill Cream. I particularly enjoyed the milquetoast nature of that particular era of television, a throwback to the classic jingle.
While there were moments in the show that were not filled with heapings of hilarity and some jokes fall flat, this is a piece which reaches out to a generation that will probably never understand the power of watching television communally and punctually. “I Love Lucy” is an important part of the cultural history of this country. And based on the reaction of many in the audience young and old, there are a whole lot of people that still love Lucy.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “I Love Lucy Live on Stage”
Directed by Rick Sparks
Original episodes written for television by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.
The Word: A soothing interpretation of a classic American television experience.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through Nov. 23rd
Tickets range from $45 – $210
The Curran Theatre
445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com