Stage Neighbors: 'I Love Lucy on Stage' returns to salute Ricardos and Mertz TV humor

2013-01-11T00:00:00Z Stage Neighbors: 'I Love Lucy on Stage' returns to salute Ricardos and Mertz TV humorBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

Joanna Daniels and Curtis Pettyjohn, the Chicago duo of local stage veterans playing "stage veterans" Ethel and Fred Mertz of "I Love Lucy" TV  fame have a clever way of interpreting their performance art.

The two are one half of the foursome leads in creator Rick Sparks' popular stage show "I Love Lucy on Stage," which has returned to Chicago for an extended run through March 3 at Broadway Playhouse in Chicago.

"We think of it as the equivalent of as, what can be likened to, 'playing the same music, but through different instruments,' " said Pettyjohn, describing his approach to playing the most famous landlord of television reruns.

The live stage show played a successful run in the fall at the stage space at Water Tower Place, then had a short hiatus prior to opening again Dec. 29 for the new extension.

The 95-minute musical comedy takes audiences back to the nostalgic era of the 1950s and is described as: "Imagine stepping back in time and into the Desilu Playhouse soundstage. It's 1952 and you are a member of the studio audience awaiting the filming of two hilarious and oh-so-familiar 'I Love Lucy' episodes. A charming host entertains and enlightens you to the behind-the-scenes filming process, the 1950's hi-fidelity technology, and this brand new thing called 'television.' The episodes begin and you witness, firsthand, the side-splitting antics of that crazy redhead in the Ricardo's New York apartment and thrill to the Cuban sounds of the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra at the famed Tropicana Nightclub. And in between scenes, the Crystaltone Singers perform live advertising jingles of the show's newest sponsors, like Brylcreem, in perfect '50s-style harmony."

The production premiered in Los Angeles 2011 to sold-out crowds for its initial five-month run.

Actress Sirena Irwin, who originated the Lucy Ricardo role in Los Angeles, reprises the favorite redhead for the Broadway in Chicago performances with Bill Mendieta also returning as hubby Ricky Ricardo.

Oak Park actress Daniels said playing Ethel Mertz has included some fine tuning.

"I not only watched the original episodes of 'I Love Lucy,' but also read actress Vivian Vance's published biography to understand how she approached the character of Ethel Mertz," Daniels said.

"For this extended performance run, we've changed the wig I wear as Ethel and I still have some added padding as part of the costuming."

In his guise as Fred Mertz, Pettyjohn said part of his key costuming was working with a tailor to get his trousers "just the right height" for "belt balance."

"We went downtown to have these pants specially made and even the tailor was laughing at how high up the Fred Mertz character wore his slacks on the show," he said.

As for the two episodes Sparks decided to showcase for the stage show, he said the decision was difficult since there were so many funny fodder options.

"In Chicago, we're doing the same episodes as produced in Los Angeles," Sparks said.

"We picked 'Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined' and 'The Benefit,' which I think are classic I Love Lucy. It's Lucy wanting to get into the show business act, just as we remember, with the addition of few changes here and there."

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