The funniest thing about "I Love Lucy" is that it forever finds perhaps the most popular comedian in history, Lucille Ball, trying to entertain but being unable to. She has to pretend she has no talent, but in the end her undeniable comic ability can't help winning out.
"I Love Lucy Live on Stage," the new musical based on the classic sitcom, has kind of the same thing going on. It's as desperate to entertain as Lucy Ricardo ever was, only it's not pretending when it suggests it doesn't have the talent to pull it off. Yet in the end the prevailing goodwill and nostalgia surrounding this most timeless of TV comedies wins out.
"I Love Lucy Live on Stage"★ ★ ½
Location: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; through Nov. 11
Parking: Pay garages and limited street parking
Rating: All audiences
It turns out you really can't mess this stuff up.
The central conceit is that it puts the audience in the mindset that it's attending a taping of two episodes at the Desilu Playhouse soundstage in the early '50s. It opens with the bustle surrounding the production, and there's a warm-up comic, and some period-costumed plants in the audience who slow things down getting in a conversation with each other -- how believable is that? -- and the Crystaltone Singers, who come out and perform some jingles, before it finally makes room for the stars and gets down to business.
Those early "I Love Lucy" episodes were models of economy and helped establish the 30-minute sitcom format (ads included, of course), but it takes the stage production an hour to complete the first episode, and another 40 minutes to finish the second -- in part because of some utterly unnecessary muffed lines by Lucy herself, which only serves to insist to the audience that it's watching a taping, not a play. Yeah, that works to suspend disbelief.
Give the production credit, however, for not repeating any of the indelibly classic episodes and routines: Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate assembly line, or Lucy stomping grapes, or Vitameatavegamin. Instead, it selects two very early episodes that would become tropes of the series: "The Benefit," in which Lucy tries to get Ricky to perform with her at a fundraiser at Ethel's women's club (and ultimately upstages him, not to give away any spoilers), and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined," in which she succeeds in landing a jitterbug dancing spot in a stage production, only to go blind following an eye exam -- and go on anyway.
So, the central question comes down to this: Do we love this Lucy or not? Outfitted with a Lego-hair red helmet and spot-on period costumes, Sirena Irwin mugs as much as Lucy ever did. She certainly doesn't have Ball's flair for physical comedy, and the climactic jitterbug sequence goes flat as a result. Still, she projects Ball's irresistible desire to be liked -- part and parcel of her essential egotism, which is what gives her an enduring edge -- and nails her perfectly pitched the-jig-is-up "ewwwww," as well as her bawling, "wahhhhh."
Even better, however, is Bill Mendieta's Ricky Ricardo (both are transposing their original roles from last year's Los Angeles debut). His Cuban accent is as perfect in its details as the apartment set, and he captures all of Desi Arnaz's charms, most of all in a "Babalu" that evokes an inevitable call-and-response from the audience.
Curtis Pettyjohn and Joanna Daniels are both serviceable as Fred and Ethel Mertz, paying homage to the originals as portrayed by William Frawley and Vivian Vance without attempting to replace them.
The rest of the production, however, has a Brylcreem varnish to it. Yes, that jingle makes it in -- and it's a high point. Yet what is one to make of the comically awful "Pleasant Peasant Girls," a throwaway routine from Ethel's women's club fundraiser? And what does it say that the best song in the production -- the one that gets the loudest audience response, both in performance and in reprise when everyone takes a bow at the end -- is the jingle to "see the USA in your Chevrolet?"
It says that you're dealing with the theatrical equivalent of the Cheesecake Factory, which conveniently is right around the corner.