If a restaurant served only crab sticks, imitation caviar, meat substitute, vegetable bacon, and Cool Whip, would you eat there? There must be a market for it (vegans), both in food and theater. Otherwise, what explains the success and tour of I Love Lucy Live on Stage, now in a dull production at the Merriam Theater?
This show attempts to re-create the experience of attending a live, studio audience filming of two episodes of I Love Lucy. One is Season One's "The Benefit" from 1952, and the other is Season Three's "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" from 1953. (Hey, if we're going for imitation, why not the childbirth episode?) For anyone raised on contemporary sitcoms, the comparatively tame writing shows its age, but the jokes, however tepid, still invite some laughter.
In her tousled red wig and a layer of cake, Sirena Irwin looks like a wax doll from Madame Tussauds. In performance, she delights with Lucille Ball's cackling laugh and a voice that purrs. Bill Mendieta dazzles as the quick-tempered though easily placated Ricky Ricardo, and the underused Kevin Remington contributes sharp-timed humor as Fred Mertz.
Without the contributions of Mark Christopher Tracy (as studio host Maury Jasper), I'd say the entire show violates the Netflix rule: Whatever you can enjoy at home on a small screen shouldn't play on a big stage. In short bursts of original writing from Kim Flagg and Rick Sparks, Tracy enlivens by cracking jokes, bantering with the audience, and, during intermission, pitting audience members in a Lucy trivia contest, the evening's most entertaining bit.
As an experience, it feels too contrived, and the two planted audience members in 1950s attire only exacerbate this effect. And though many examples of superb artistry appear in this production, the piece itself - by centering on the two full-length episodes - no more counts as art than imitation foods count as haute cuisine. Instead of re-creating what once provided tourists with a valid experiential souvenir of a trip to Hollywood, I Love Lucy Live on Stage transforms the watching of a live show into something mundane, and is not even impressive in its imitation.
I Love Lucy Live on Stage
Directed by Ricky Sparks.
With Sirena Irwin, Bill Mendieta, Kevin Remington, and Mark Christopher Tracy. Playing through Sunday at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $25 to $75. Information: 215-731-3333, kimmelcenter.org/Broadway.