'I Love Lucy Live on Stage' is a trip to TV's golden age

In a 2012 survey conducted for a special edition of ABC’s 20/20, a groundbreaking 1950s sitcom was chosen the best television show of all time.

Hundreds of great series have come and gone since I Love Lucy premiered on Oct. 15, 1951. But the longevity and popularity of that black-and-white show centered around Lucy Ricardo, a trouble-prone, showbiz-crazy redhead; Ricky Ricardo, her Cuban bandleader husband; and Fred and Ethel Mertz, their ex-vaudevillian best friends, proves the truth of its title: Everybody does love Lucy.

Writers Kim Flagg and Rick Sparks thought that enduring affection would carry over to a stage version of the show. So the two created I Love Lucy Live on Stage, a piece of music-filled theater that will launch the 2014-15 Broadway in Miami series at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Opening its national tour at the Ziff Ballet Opera House, the show marks a professional homecoming for Euriamis Losada, a double Carbonell Award-winning actor who was born in Cuba, raised in Miami and moved to Los Angeles not long after the Arsht Center opened with The Light in the Piazza in 2006.

“When I saw that, I sat really far up,” says Losada, who’s playing Desi Arnaz and is excited to be back in a place that means family, friends and great Cuban food. “I still haven’t quite settled into the idea that I’ll be performing in all these enormous venues.”

What audiences experience is the fictitious filming of two shows at the Desilu Playhouse circa 1952. The scripts are real I Love Lucy episodes with minor alterations, live commercials and some additional material tying everything together. The first, The Benefit, originally aired Jan. 7, 1952; the second, Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined, aired Dec. 14, 1953.

Flagg, a writer for the Tim Allen sitcoms Last Man Standing and Home Improvement, says she and Sparks had clear ideas about what the stage show needed when they created an earlier version for long runs in Los Angeles, Chicago and a 2013-14 tour.

“I made a list of criteria and sat down with the box set of episodes,” Flagg says. “I wanted episodes with all four characters appearing pretty evenly. I knew we could use two major sets, so I wanted the Ricardos’ apartment and the Tropicana nightclub. I wanted to build it, so that the first episode would be smaller and the second one would be at the Tropicana. I wanted to show the theme where Lucy is trying to get into showbiz, and I wanted an episode with a lot of music.”

The result, she thinks, isn’t just a valentine to a beloved, influential show.

“I wanted it to be about an era and about a time when TV was brand new,” she says. “People think they’re buying a ticket to a theatrical show. They’re really buying a ticket to a time machine that takes them back to 1952. And I think some of the people don’t want to come back.”

The four actors playing the leads are really doing double duty, though they’re listed in the program by their TV character names. Losada is really playing Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo. Thea Brooks is Lucille Ball as Lucy, Lori Hammel is Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz, and Kevin Remington plays William Frawley as Fred Mertz.

Brooks, a Carnegie Mellon grad who remembers visiting her grandparents in Coral Gables as a kid, is doing her second national tour in I Love Lucy Live on Stage (her first was in Dirty Dancing). She says she feels quite comfortable playing the woman many consider the best female comedian ever.

“I get cast in a lot of period roles, especially for this era. I have a good ear for dialect. And I really do love all things antiquated,” Brooks says. “The character of Lucy Ricardo is one in a million.”

The actress did not, however, grow up watching I Love Lucy reruns.

“My mom was a big hippie, so we grew up without TV. We did have Lucy magnets on our fridge, so she was always looking at me whenever I went to get some milk,” Brooks says.

Hammel has been watching past episodes to observe Vance’s vocal delivery and physicality, and to see the interplay of Ball and Vance.

“You feel you’re watching the masters at work,” Hammel says. “Their comedy is so clean, so simple, so sound.”

Remington, the only one of the four leads who was in the earlier version of the show, went to the Atlantic Foundation for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Like so many in the audience, he has fond memories of the TV show.

“These four characters are attached to people’s lives. They’re almost real. People have memories of them that are as vivid as some memories of people they really knew,” he says. “I watched them as a kid. They’re part of my American television DNA.”

Losada has immersed himself in all things I Love Lucy. At his audition, he demonstrated that he could — like Arnaz — play the bongos while singing Babalu. He’s been watching old episodes of the show, looking at Arnaz interviews to get the performer’s inflections, living and breathing the character. His Miami family, including mom Maria and dad Luis, will be at the Arsht on opening night.

“My mom loved I Love Lucy, and my dad always said that Desi was the first Cuban to be famous in America,” Losada says. “I felt a sense of pride and identity. And it makes me proud to be playing him.”

Though I Love Lucy Live on Stage is opening the Arsht’s new Broadway series, the show has never been Broadway-tested. Flagg says she and Sparks aren’t opposed to a New York run, but they aren’t so sure they need one.

“We go back and forth on that. Most shows start on Broadway to get a name, so they can then go on tour,” she says. “Our brand name is so strong that we felt maybe we could buck the system and start out on tour.”

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