I Love Lucy; It's symbolic, iconic, sometimes ironic, but the main truth is that it IS loved, just as the ground-breaking actress/comedienne star of the show, Lucille Ball, was loved – even adored, until death do us part and long beyond.
It's an undeniable fact that's been proven year after year, with the laughter (and WAAAHs!) of that oh-so-loved wacky red-head and her live audience still ringing in our ears, on our televisions and even on stage.
Yes, I said ON STAGE; I Love Lucy Live On Stage, that crazy popular sitcom, played on black and white TVs in living rooms all over the country,is now on stage, in all its glory, complete with wackadoodle Lucy, Dun't-say-I-Dun't-speak-good-English-Ricky and even Vaudeville veterans and sidekicks Fred and Ethel – with a few other characters thrown in for good measure.
I Love Lucy Live On Stage is the new hit stage production, showing us what it was like when the first TV sitcom was ever taped in front of a live audience, with the still-used three camera method and it's playing now at our very own Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) until February 2, 2014.
As soon as you step into the theatre, you are transported to the stage setting of a 1950s live taping of an I Love Lucy episode and you are one of the live audience members. (Hint: the only 1950s characters won't be onstage!)
Before opening night, I was privileged to meet and greet Sirena Irwin aka Lucy and Bill Mendieta aka Ricky in the Greenroom of TPAC. One of the first questions asked of the two was how they came about starring in this production which is definitely still in its infancy (World premier Los Angeles, October 2011).
In costume, Sirena Irwin answered the question first, unconsciously fluttering those “Lucy-long” false eyelashes and looking remarkably like the redhead, with that big toothed smile, red lipstick and flaming red hair,
"For me, I came with a deficit, because I didn't have a deep understanding or knowledge of I Love Lucy. I didn't grow up with a television."
It wasn't until Irwin was in an 'acting for professionals' class that a woman approached her to ask if she'd seen much of I Love Lucy (the sitcom episodes); when Sirena answered no, she really hadn't but should. This woman, one Paula Stewart (who played Lucille Ball's little sister on Broadway,) then invited Sirena to visit her home and shared with her poignant and personal artifacts and momentos from Stewart's own personal friendship with the Queen of Comedy (such as the Backgammon board they once played together and letters from Lucy, also her collection of I Love Lucy's videos) – and so, Irwin's own “relationship” with Lucille Ball began, that is, the beginning of her journey into the world of Lucille Ball. It's apparent that Miss Stewart had also seen Lucy in the character of Irwin, feeling she would grow as an actress/comedienne by studying Miss Ball. Obviously, she was correct.
Bill Mendieta's story was a bit different;
“I grew up in San Francisco,” said Mendieta “I have a family that's all involved in the arts, (...), there's a harpest in there, there are dancers in there, visual artists and singers. Performing was always just something we did for each other.”
Staying busy in theatre, Mendieta eventually moved to LA and started to get more involved in the TV and film industry, with TV appearances and commercials, but always still involved in theatre,
"That was always my point of touching the ground, getting back to my roots,” said Mendietta, fondness of the genre showing in his eyes.
Preferring roles that were challenging, Mendienta says he always called himself "a character actor in a leading man's body," loving the challenging roles he played, such as an Arabic assassin; roles he could disappear into and no one would recognize him. Roles like the Hunchback of Notre Dame,
“The hunchback role was really enjoyable,” says the actor.
Mendieta, with an nod of agreement from Irwin, said that having done some directing, improvisation, and the like, helped him get an understanding of what works comedically and in some ways set him up for this project.
At the project's inception, Irwin saw a notice of the I Love Lucy casting and thought,
"Okay, I want to learn some classic sitcoms, I want to do THAT, that's what I want to do! That's what attracts me to projects... what do I want to do? What's going to be fun to me?"
Knowing the character of Ricky would garner great material, including leading a band and singing, as well as playing the hilarious role of Ricardo, Lucy's straight man and husband, Mendieta thought that this could be a really fun project.
What was originally to be a short three week gig, consisting of rehearsals then the filming of the production, developed into the show it is today.
Both Irwin and Mendieta went to college at San Francisco State University, so when Bill began his journey into the wacky world of I Love Lucy, he was definitely excited to hear Irwin's name brought up. He knew she would be a great asset to the play.
The production was first tested in Los Angeles and was soon playing to a sold out house with thousands of people on waiting lists for tickets to I Love Lucy Live On Stage at the small theatre where they were performing. Later, the production was moved to Chicago and once again, it was a hit, with full houses and people clamoring for more, so a national tour was logically the next step.
Now, after having been performed over 400 times, the show is developing its own personality, character, taking on a life of its own and is being taken to a broader audience. I find myself wondering how long it will be before it's taken to Broadway, eager to see how the play develops, how it evolves and how the world reacts to a new view of an old classic.
"What's also fun about this show is that each iteration of the show, each cast, has been very particular and very special with it. This cast here (in Nashville) is a combination of some people from Chicago, some people from LA and some new people. And we have become family, with all the complexities of that,” ponders the leading man.
The closeness the two leading actors shared was most definitely evident in the two during their interview, that they were connected, with one often finishing the other's thought or sentence or the two laughing over a shared memory.
And of course, this connection was part of the chemistry felt as the duo performed the roles of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz that evening, playing the famous TV couple (who were married in real life and had to sleep in twin beds in the show), Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, on opening night at TPAC.
It's a performance that will bring back memories of earlier times and make new memories for times to come. It is nostalgic and refreshingly new, endearing and compelling, active and reactive, all in one exciting two hour performance.
It's perfect for those of us who are a bit long in the tooth and those still cutting new teeth. It's a night of entertainment you can sink those teeth into, a taste of life as it once was while leaving a pleasant taste in your mouth for many memories to come. It's definitely worth taking the family to see, to feel and yes – to taste – this slice of life gone by.
Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendieta, And make sure to get info on times and tickets at tpac.org.