Lucille Ball was an inescapable force of nature for decades in American culture, her deceptive comedic gifts painting an image of a charming ditz who, in real life, was as canny and driven a player as anyone in her generation of the entertainment biz—the ones who made the leap from radio to TV, from black and white to color, and who helped shape the dreams and laughs of the post-World War II generation.
I Love Lucy Live on Stage premiered in L.A. in 2011 with a nimble premise (and admirably self-explanatory title): recreating two episodes of the classic series while also portraying the behind-the-scenes brilliance that made the show such a groundbreaking powerhouse. The program was borne out of a radio comedy called My Favorite Husband (set, improbably enough, in Minneapolis, presumably around the time Mary Richards was learning her multiplication tables), but its ratings-dominating run in the 1950s embraced a number of important firsts.
The show was filmed in front of a live audience—with Ball’s hijinks sparking such hilarity that spectator recordings were later used as laugh tracks on other shows. It also was shot in a multi-camera format, with interspersed cuts—the same basic concept behind the production of everything from All in the Family to Friends. Ball was also a trailblazer in insisting that her Cuban husband star with her in a time not known for multicultural appreciation (she was the only cast member permitted to make fun of Desi’s accent), and, after their divorce, she became the first woman to solely head up a Hollywood production company (one that would go on to put its imprint on, among others, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek).
Of course this was all secondary to what got her there in the first place: whip-crack smarts and a knack for self-deprecating slapstick and timing honed to perfection. I Love Lucy Live on Stage has received glowing reviews before its arrival here, and the reactions seem consistent: This ain’t heavy stuff (it never was). But it’s a knowing homage that captures the spirit of bygone genius and the underpinnings of so much of what still tickles us today.
I Love Lucy Live on Stage
State Theatre, 1/20–25