About halfway through “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” an edition (season three, episode 13) of CBS' “I Love Lucy“ show, Ethel Mertz goes up on her lines.
Had you actually been lucky enough to be at that 1953 Desilu Productions taping in Hollywood, you would, of course, have been watching Lucille Ball, one of the greatest American comedians in history, going up on her lines, and doubtless recovering, hilariously. The chance of such a candid moment (and, long ago, a chance to see black-and-white visitors in full color) remains why most people go to such tapings.
But at “I Love Lucy Live on Stage,” which opened Wednesday night at the Broadway Playhouse under the direction of Rick Sparks, the name Lucille Ball is avoided, I suspect because the producers of a commercially touring show aiming to trade on the residual affection for one of the most popular TV shows of all time are worried about rights issues, even though they have licensed two original “I Love Lucy” teleplays — the evening begins with “The Benefit,” another episode that showcases Lucy's perennial love of showbiz and thus serves this particular theatrical purpose.
Lucy is played by an actress who arrived with this relatively new production from Los Angeles, Sirena Irwin. Of course, she's really playing Lucille Ball playing Lucy Ricardo and that forgotten-lines shtick offers a real opportunity for her to let one layer peel away while revealing another famous woman beneath. But Irwin, stymied perhaps by the legal problem outlined above or maybe just by an enterprise not much interested in these deeper matters, punts.
There is no palpable difference between the two characters; no exploration of where Lucille stopped and Lucy began; no vulnerability.
It's such a shame. I suspect this brassy actress, who is funny, vibrant and physically adroit but who misses Ball's crucial guilelessness and who is not connected enough for a town where connection is most everything at the theater, could do a great deal with a character — OK, two characters, it's a tough assignment — that she has technically mastered but not inhabited fully enough to catch our hearts.
Instead, we get our emcee, played by Ed Kross, who has done this kind of thing many times before, making some crack about how, gee folks, these things happen since even TV stars are human. That revealing (or, more accurately, nonrevealing) moment is enough to signal that “I Love Lucy Live On Stage” is really not much interested in precise detail or observation (the setting evokes the tapings, but does not even attempt to re-create them with any veracity), so much as providing a genial, easy and risk-free evening of music and familiar comedy, a renewed sighting of Ethel, Fred and Ricky, allowing some in the audience to feel nostalgic for their youth and others to have a little loving fun at the expense of the naive 1950s, with its Brylcreem and its Crystaltone Singers. To my mind, Lucy and Ricky, whose creators knew the sweet spot between intimacy and otherness, deserved more.
In Chicago, you can't help comparing this show to the Annoyance Theatre's 1990s classic “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” although “I Love Lucy Live On Stage,” with its fake audience interactions, little contests, live commercials and keep-it-movin' banter, actually is far closer in style to the radio-play versions of “It's a Wonderful Life” that sprout up in Chicago each holiday season (usually with the ever quick-witted Kross somewhere in the cast).
“Brady Bunch” was anarchic in its tone — look at us, it cried out, we're just daring to do the old TV scripts as is — “Lucy” is reverent and careful to a fault. Fair enough, you might say, this is one of the very rare TV shows that demands perpetual reverence. Ah, but then you need detail and, ideally, a point of view.
If you don't feel the need for that kind of thing after a tough day, you'll likely be fine for 100 intermissionless minutes. This certainly is a pretty big variety show for your money — there is a mostly likable, all-Equity cast of 14 actors (Chicago performers support the two leads from the L.A. production), a seven-piece band (accompanying Bill Mendieta's very youthful Ricky Ricardo at the Tropicana Nightclub), two actual episodes staged before your eyes by capable comic actors like Lauren Creel, Rebecca Prescott and George Keating, lots of song and dance, and various other interjections and fast-paced amusements. Annoyingly, the place is peppered with audience plants — who of course laugh liberally at that which is not especially funny, suggesting the show is not as confident as it should be — although Wednesday night, some people generally seemed to be enjoying hearing the great old scripts again, listening to Kross work the crowd so well and forgetting some of the troubles of the day, and our time.
Actually, the excellent Curtis Pettyjohn and Joanna Daniels (who play Fred and Ethel, characters originally created by Vivian Vance and William Frawley) deliver the best and most human scenes, perhaps because they are not as burdened as Mendieta and Irwin with the pressure of expectations that comes when you try and emulate such talents as Ball and Desi Arnaz, and thus can relax and be more real. Mendieta, a genuine talent who grows on you, also has his moments, if not so much chemistry or the like with his wife, or, as would really be ideal here, wives.
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Running time: 1 hours, 40 minutes