Lucille Ball was not only a great comedian and a shrewd business person but also indirectly created the genre of Reality TV, that has turned what was becoming an art form into an annoying distraction. By presenting a heavily fictionalized version of her life for our amusement, Ball became an intimate, a friend who was welcomed into everyone's home. And she still is: I Love Lucy is still in reruns worldwide and, more tellingly, is still entertaining. Sixty years from now will the Kardashians and their ilk be anything but a footnote in the history of the decline of popular culture?
I Love Lucy Live on Stage is cunningly built on the premise that the theatre audience is the studio audience during the filming of two I Love Lucy episodes in the 1950s. The episodes themselves play on our craving for nostalgia, for a simpler time, and the comedy does hold up. In a post-Seinfeld world a simple jokey plotline seems naive but charming; in a post-2 Broke Girls world, the lack of crudity and endless innuendo is refreshing. But I Love Lucy Live on Stage has ambitions beyond the re-creation of beloved memories. The live commercial plugs that were an important part of early televison are mined for laughs, gentle social satire and even a cultural critique involving Geiger counters and beauty products. The Crystaltone singers bounce energetically on stage and pitch us Brylcreem and Chevrolet, and they are charmingly funny as we get to experience pure nostalgia while also laughing at its campiness.
More intriguing, but not quite realized, is the backstage action. The audience knows that Desi Arnaz was an alcoholic and a philanderer, and that the marriage was tempestuous and rocky. When the leads, playing the actors playing the Ricardos, come out for a meet and great with the audience and Lucy mocks Desi's accent relentlessly there is real tension and a sense that this could get very interesting. Alas it isn't followed through but then, if it had been, it would be a very different form of entertainment. Unfortunately the backstage interludes that are depicted - a brief section where lines are confused - break the momentum of the episodes and the hybrid grows tonally confusing.
Sirena Erwin as Lucy is a wonderful physical comedian and digs deep to portray a professional woman just trying to do her job while suppressing a desperate need for love and approval. As a character Lucy Ricardo always skated on the edge of being pathological and frightening, and it was often hard to understand how the Ricky Ricardo character found it all charming and lovable. Television make-up in the '50s was undoubtedly heavy-handed and garish in order to look natural but this Lucy's eerie resemblance to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest or a drag queen trying too hard, gives I Love Lucy Live on Stage a resonance that, whether intentional or not, gives the entire production a depth that haunts.
The ensemble works hard and tease several intriguing storylines that in a more Noises Off-style show would dig into for a big pay off. Hunky stage manager Gerald - Jeffrey Christopher Todd who's breathtaking hunkiness can't be hidden by the nerdy (or today fashionably hipster) garb and glasses - casts furtive glances and wounded double takes towards Mark Christopher Tracy's jovial and frantic host. Now there is a dynamic, romantic or power based, that is demanding to take centrestage.
As a period piece, I Love Lucy Live on Stage, is a diverting entertainment; as a backstage expose it pulls its punches and teases of what it could have been. But if you love Lucy - and face it, who doesn't? - the evening flies by and a taste of the supposed innocence of a time gone by whets the appetite for a Lucille Ball tell-all book. And it gives those Kardashians something to work towards achieving.
I Love Lucy Live on Stagecontinues until Sun, Nov 3 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St W. mirvish.com