The touring production of “I Love Lucy Live on Stage” is, on one hand, exactly what it promises to be: a live staging of two full episodes of the groundbreaking television sitcom. On the other hand, it’s also an exercise in nostalgia-fueled meta-viewing—the audience plays the roles of members of a live studio audience in 1952 at Desilu Playhouse, where “I Love Lucy” filmed.
Transporting an audience back to witness the creation of these shows brings up strong memories, says co-writer and producer Kim Flagg—of watching the shows with a beloved grandparent, or of learning how to speak English by watching the re-runs.
“What we really found that is most special is people bring this emotional connection to it, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, that’s far above and beyond anything we could have created,” she said.
“I Love Lucy Live on Stage” opens Tuesday in Louisville and runs through Sunday in the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts’ Whitney Hall.
The project really began in 2000, when Flagg and a team of producers started creating a national exhibition tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the show. The large-scale tented exhibit traveled state fairs and expo centers, showcasing memorabilia, replicas of the sets, and other “Lucy” ephemera. Flagg said the team quickly learned that quite a lot of people still love Lucy—even in January, when the exhibit was scheduled to open at Minnesota’s Mall of America.
“It was way below zero and there were 5,000 people standing outside waiting for the doors to open,” she said. “This hasn’t died. This has only grown.”
She calls that moment her eye-opener—all the team needed were actors to bring the experience to life. But what’s special about watching live reenactments of television episodes that have run in perpetuity since the early 1950s?
“I think there’s a magic to it. And I think when you’re seeing it on stage and you’re seeing it collectively with a bunch of people who all have the same emotional connection to it, it lifts it way above watching it by yourself on TV in black and white,” said Flagg. “It’s like a shared experience, I think.”
There’s a flip-side to that shared emotional connection. “I Love Lucy” is a well-loved commodity, and audiences have very specific expectations. Flagg remembers the show’s first “proof of concept” production in a 99-seat theater in Los Angeles. What they hoped to prove—that audiences would accept anyone other than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in those iconic roles.
“That was a daunting and scary notion. Our opening night was yep, they sure do. Because it’s not just about the show ‘I Love Lucy,’ the actual episodes. It’s also everything that surrounds it, which includes the era, the birth of television, the early ’50s, which was much more naïve, and the style of the ’50s and the costumes, and to be able to go into Desilu Studios and be part of that studio audience in 1952,” she said.
Here’s how it works: a show runner warms up the audience, live music entertains the audience during set changes, and commercials for vintage products like Brylcreem are performed live. The two episodes featured are “The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” two classic portrayals of Lucy trying to break into show business.
“You start narrowing it down and going what represents the overall show in two episodes? How do we get all those themes, those classic iconic themes in there?” said Flagg.
That’s especially difficult for a beloved show, especially when everyone has their favorite episodes, like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (aka the Vitameatavegamin episode) and “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (featuring the infamous grape stomping scene). The adaptors winnowed the catalog down using hard criteria: all four main characters (Ricky, Lucy, Fred and Ethel) had to appear. No kids, no dogs. And episodes that were set primarily in the Ricardos’ New York apartment and the Tropicana nightclub were particularly attractive to Flagg.
“I looked specifically for episodes that had music in them for the stage, because that energizes the audience. You want that Cuban flair,” she said.