INTERVIEW: ‘I Love Lucy: Live on Stage’ recreates iconic sitcom with Sirena Irwin as Lucy

Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendieta as Lucy and Ricky in 'I Love Lucy: Live on Stage' — Photo courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendieta as Lucy and Ricky in ‘I Love Lucy: Live on Stage’ — Photo courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

I Love Lucy: Live on Stage has been transporting audiences back to the days when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were frequent presences on the living-room television. The variety show, which first premiered in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, stars Sirena Irwin as the iconic comedienne. With her red hair, redder lipstick and great sense of physical comedy, Irwin looks and acts the part, fitting in nicely with the cast of characters everyone seems to know by heart. From Ricky to Ethel and Fred, the show has all of the favorites.

I Love Lucy: Live on Stage is currently on a national tour, visiting Indianapolis; Lincoln, Neb.; Fort Worth, Texas; Costa Mesa, Calif.; Tucson, Ariz.; Seattle; and Reno, Nev., in the coming months.

For Irwin, this multi-year journey began with a pep talk from the show’s director Rick Sparks.

“Apparently when they were looking around for Lucy, [Sparks] said that a bunch of people who had already been cast said, ‘Hey, you need to call in Sirena,’” Irwin said recently in a phone conversation from her Fayetteville, Ark., hotel room. “And so I went in and auditioned, and they asked me to prepare Vitaminavegimin and a song, and be ready to improvise with the people who had been already cast as Ricky and Ethel.”

Irwin said it was nice to have that audition with friendly, familiar faces. After Sparks offered her the role, though, she tried to talk him out of the decision. Irwin had a secret that she said could have prevented her from the earning the top role: She never really watched I Love Lucy.

“I felt like I had come with such a deficit,” she said. “I mean when they asked me to prepare Vitaminavegimin, it was the first time I had seen Vitaminavegimin.”

Vitaminavegimin, of course, is one of the most famous Lucy episodes. In it, the main character is tapped to sell a horrible tasting concoction on a national commercial spot. Her inability to say the product’s name and obvious disgust for the drink are now part of comedy history.

“I didn’t grow up with a television. I didn’t find it in my best senses to educate myself on I Love Lucy. So I was wanting, really wanting to make sure that the audiences were going to get the best representation of Lucy Ricardo that they could get, and at that time, I didn’t feel like I was prepared to do that. And Rick said, ‘No, we really believe in you. We don’t want an impersonator. We want actors in these roles that are going to capture the essence of these characters, and to honor these characters and the show. And this is a valentine to the show, but we don’t want impersonators.’ So I said, ‘OK.’”

Irwin proceeded to watch many Lucy episodes and read books about the making of the TV series. That education has led her on a journey into the heart and mind of this character and actress, and on a regular basis, she’s now able to recreate the history she has come to know and love.

When audiences sit down to watch I Love Lucy: Live on Stage, they are essentially seeing two live tapings of famous Lucy episodes. The musical revue allows viewers the chance to transport themselves back in time and be part of a live studio audience. The unique format of the variety show has led to slam-bang success.

“I think we were originally slated for … five or six weeks maybe, something like that, and, of course, in Los Angeles it ended up going for six months. I didn’t know that that was where it was going to head, but it was really exciting to have something so well-received. And apparently the producers had wait lists with thousands of names on it by the end of the run.”

The show moved to Chicago for some time, and now it has taken to the highways of the United States. “There’s absolutely different regional experiences of the show, and I can’t put my finger on why,” said Irwin, who has done voiceover work for SpongeBob Squarepants and animated Superman movies. “But you’ll find in one city it’ll be a guaranteed laugh you’ll get somewhere else, and it’ll just be a chuckle. You’ll get somewhere else that had just been a chuckle, and suddenly it’s a big laugh. … All of us come to this show based on I Love Lucy, this incredibly iconic, wonderful, funny, loving, joyful show. And yet, it’s fascinating to me that regionally it’s still a different experience. We’re all getting the same television show, and yet people have processed it in different ways, find different things about the humor.”

That fascination has helped Irwin perform the show more than 400 times. Even after that many performances, the actors, some of whom are original members like Irwin, continue to test the material. Comedy, the actress said, is all about timing. Laughs can fall or rise based on tiny differences, what Irwin calls minutiae.

“It’s kind of crazy to me that I have done this show so many times, and I’m not at all tired of it, that it’s still fresh, that it’s still exciting, that it’s still fun. But I sure am glad because otherwise this would be a very interesting experiment.”

Irwin said she loves the professor episode, a prime example of impeccable timing. The actress also ranks the ballet episode and the episode when Lucy has trouble telling Ricky she’s pregnant as other favorites.

“For me, the relationship between Lucy and Ricky is so beautifully represented in the episode … where she is trying to tell him that she’s pregnant and finally is able to do so,” Irwin said. “And it’s just this beautiful, emotional, simple, truthful moment, and I feel like that’s one of the major things that keeps us so connected to this show. … You have the flip side of the zany physical comedy, and then you have the other side, which is this really truthful, loving relationship.”

Although one day Irwin may put down the Vitaminavegimin bottle for good, she probably will remain a convert to Lucy fandom forever. “Lucille Ball is just an incredible force,” she said. “I’m really happy that I’ve come to this show. I’m sorry I didn’t come to I Love Lucy and get to know the show sooner, but I’m really glad that I know it now.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

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John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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