Rick Sparks can still remember the days when people loved Lucy in groups.
For that matter, they all loved her at the same time. And though the screen was small by 2014 standards, the gathering before the television felt like a much larger event.
"Those few lucky families in the neighborhood that would have the television present, it was a beacon to their neighbors," said Sparks, the co-writer and director of "I Love Lucy Live on Stage."
"And then what my family did, and friends in other neighborhoods, they would all wander over to that person's house. And it was a weekly event to watch 'Your Show of Shows' or 'Jackie Gleason' later, of course. But these wonderful shows brought family and friends together, and it was quite the event."
Sparks isn't quite old enough to have watched the original run of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz sitcom in the 1950s. He did, though, watch the first reruns a few years later and even had a running feud with his neighbors about whether "Lucy" was funnier than "I Married Joan," which screened back-to-back with it.
Regardless, Sparks sometimes misses the days before viewers could binge-watch a series like "House of Cards" on their own schedule. And so, when "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" comes to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on March 18, it will offer the classic television experience from top to bottom — complete with recreated commercials, a host, studio singers and cameras hovering around.
In short, if you ever watched the episodes "The Benefit" and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" and dreamed of being in the studio audience, now is your opportunity. Sparks' show works off the original scripts of both episodes, with some liberties, and intersperses onstage ads for 1950s-vintage products like Brylcreem and Alka-Seltzer.
"The premise is that we ask you to believe that you're walking into Desilu Playhouse on Romaine [Street] in Hollywood, Calif., in 1952, and from the moment that you enter the theater, it's as though you've stepped back into '52 with Desilu and you're watching the television show filmed," Sparks said.
"I Love Lucy Live on Stage" premiered in 2011 at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles and moved on to Chicago before starting its national tour. Examiner.com critic Ron Irwin, reviewing the Los Angeles production, wrote, "I frankly cannot remember any performance in any venue in recent time that caused me to laugh so long and so hard."
The leads from that production, Sirena Irwin as Lucy Ricardo and Bill Mendieta as her husband, Ricky, will resume their roles at Segerstrom. Sparks said that staging the episodes live made him appreciate more than ever the original actors' craft — in particular, Ball's physical dexterity as a comedian. In one episode in the show, the heroine learns to dance the jitterbug, which gave Sparks' cast the challenge of reenacting her timing.
"I knew that Lucille Ball was a talented woman, but I didn't realize what an amazing athlete she was and how successful she was in so many aspects of an array of talents," he said. "Because she doesn't stop, and her mimicry, her pantomime work, her physicality — she's an athlete."
If You Go
What: "I Love Lucy Live on Stage"
Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. March 18 through 21, 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 22, 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 23
Cost: Starts at $29
Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org