Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When You Really, Really, Really Love Lucy

Okay, no need to rub your eyes.  That's definitely not the original cast of "I Love Lucy."  The optics are not playing tricks on you.

That is the touring company cast of a kitschy concoction called "I Love Lucy Live On Stage."  It's been bouncing around the country for a couple of years and I finally caught up with it in Orange County.  Naturally, if you're going to recreate America's greatest sitcom ever, I need to go and be the final judge.

This rather ingenious idea first started a few years ago.  A small theater on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood staged it.   There was some press and, well, I did need to be the final judge.  My friend, Djinn from the Bronx, wanted to take me for my birthday.  To our shock, the damn thing was sold out for the entire three month run!  

Flash forward to 2014.  My childhood pal Leo sees that the touring company has come to some Costa Mesa hall and inquires whether I would be interested.  Well, is a loving cup destined to get stuck on Lucy's head in the subway?  Of course, I was interested.  So, we all trooped down to see just what all the buzz has been about.


It would have to be completely perfect to get past my sniff test.  I am, after all, an expert.  And I had the added burden of totally focusing on the script.  I wanted to make sure the words of the original writers, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis, had not been altered one iota.

So, if you're the producers of this stage production, you've got the deck stacked against you as far as yours truly is concerned.

Well, they got away with it.  Sort of.  I can't say that I was overwhelmed by it all.  But I had a smile on my face as I left.  Even if I did have a few nits to pick.

The gimmick here is you're supposedly part of a studio audience for a 1950s filming of "I Love Lucy."  To stretch out the proceedings, you're going to watch not one, but two different episodes.  Okay, that would never have happened, but they had to flesh out the evening in some way.  I also noted that, back in 1953 and still in 2014, you can be part of a sitcom live audience for free.  But, if you want to see "I Love Lucy - Live on Stage," well, my seat cost 79 bucks.  And that wasn't even the top tier.

I wondered how they were going to get two hours of stage production out of two half-hour scripts, but they did.  Before it even started, I rifled through the Playbill to make sure Bob and Madelyn were listed somewhere.  They were.  Okay, we were off to a good start.

It all began with some stage manager welcoming you to the Desilu Playhouse.  You were instructed how to be part of a television audience.  Oh, yeah, do you see that applause sign?  This guy did the usual sitcom warm-up act.   Stale jokes and asking who had traveled the farthest.   There were plants in the audience, dressed straight from my grandmother's hall closet.  Points were belabored to the point of domestic abuse.  Yo, we got it.  But I began to understand how they were going to turn this hamburger into a lengthy six-course dinner.

Two actual scripts were used.  "The Benefit" from the very first season.  "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" from the third season.  I noted the set of the Ricardos' apartment.   It was the second apartment used with the window in the background.  Okay, that wasn't the apartment they were in during the first season.  Ahem.  Two points off from Len.

I also got the sense that the dialogue was being altered.   It seemed like there were elements from other episodes sifting their way into these stagings.  Suddenly, we have four women on stage singing "The Pleasant Peasant" number from "The Operetta" episode.  Oh, really? 

When it was time to change a set or wardrobe, the now ultra-annoying stage manager came back to set up a word from the "I Love Lucy" sponsors.   We saw staged versions of famous 50s commercials.  Brylcreem with that little dab that will do you.  Mr. Clean, which, by the way, did not get its first TV ad until 1958---a year after the half-hour version of Lucy went off the air.   Oh, yeah, and Chevrolet with their songstress/spokesperson Dinah Beach.   A dead giveaway that the producers couldn't get clearance to use Dinah Shore's name.

Of course, more points off from Len.   None of these products sponsored "I Love Lucy."   Where were the cigarette ads calling for Phillip Morris??  The little midget in the bellhop outfit?  Were the producers being sensitive to the Surgeon General?  Hello?  

Of course, if you're going to stage old "I Love Lucy" episodes in 2014, you have to expect that the actors would come under scrutiny.  Wisely, none of the players attempted to do imitations of the original cast.   Instead, they employed body language (and, naturally, a bright red wing) to invoke our perceptions of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel.  Indeed, the two playing Lucy and Ricky were perfect.   The Mertzes, however, didn't fare as well.  Ethel sounds like a version of Granny Clampett.   She'd be ideal when they decide to recreate "The Beverly Hillbillies."   And Fred Mertz was way too tall.   As near as I can remember, William Frawley did not play for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The major problem with it all was that an "I Love Lucy" filming back in 1954 was a rather intimate affair.   There were probably no more 200 bleacher seats in their soundstage.   Heck, these days, most sitcoms don't have audiences bigger than 300 folks.  In this Costa Mesa barn, there were likely over 1,500 filled seats.   As a result, nuances were lost.  The closeness to the characters was non-existent.   You had to strain to hear Lucy's famed spider noise.

I also think that the producers really gave short shrift to Desi Arnaz.   In this show, he's basically one of the actors.  But, indeed, the real guy was a genius.  He essentially invented the whole "three-camera-film-before-a-live-audience" concept.  Admittedly, they probably didn't want to get too technical.  But, some mention of Desi's role in TV history should have been included.  I mean, Desi Arnaz is one of the top five people that I would have liked to meet in my lifetime.  Future versions of this live show really need to rethink this. 

So, as I saw in Row R, I was mentally clicking off one complaint after another.  And, then, at the end of the evening, the audience around me rose as one and gave it a standing ovation.

So did I.

What the hell???

Perhaps, the whoops and hollers had more to do with the legacy of the original than this recreation.   Or maybe the folks were just so damn appreciative to see this live and in person that they didn't really care about the inconsistencies and some of the hammier acting.

Go figure.  They all loved Lucy.

I guess we always will.

Dinner last night:  Leftover meat loaf.

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