She loves Lucy: Sirena Irwin splits red hairs in perfecting stage portrait of TV comedienne
Interview: Sirena Irwin is comedy’s favorite redhead in “I Love Lucy Live on Stage,” presented by Broadway in Chicago in a return engagement at the Broadway Playhouse through March 3.
By Nancy Malitz
There aren’t many people who could get away with the argument that watching old “I Love Lucy” re-runs is homework, but Sirena Irwin is one.
This L.A. actor, comedienne, voice-over artist and master of the short comic sketch understands the importance of nuance in capturing the essence of comedy’s favorite redhead.
So each night, after playing Lucy Ricardo on the stage of Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, Irwin replays one of the original 179 “I Love Lucy” episodes on DVD. She’s been doing that more or less from the beginning of her affiliation with the show “I Love Lucy Live on Stage,” which started life in Los Angeles in September 2011.
“I like to keep her in my blood,” said Irwin by telephone in the early hours of New Year’s Eve. “I’m always amazed by something very — I want to say humble — very grounded in her. Lucy doesn’t feel to me like anything is a put-on. She’s got these interests. One is herself, to be who she wants to be, the performer she never got to truly be. But she also wants to be the loving and doting wife who turns on a dime and forgets herself to be about Ricky.
“There is a lightness about Lucy, nothing truly dark, even when she is all doom and gloom. I think it must be what she was actually born as — I mean Lucille Ball herself here — shining through. It’s irresistible. The other thing that makes us drawn to Lucy is that even though we all have to let go of that child within us at some point, she’s still got that joy that happens with being a child, and all those instant needs that need to be satisfied. So maybe Lucy’s working as wish fulfillment for a lot of us.”
The Lucy sitcom may be more than 60 years old, but it was still so beloved in September 2012 that fans voted it the best TV show of all time in a survey conducted by ABC News and People Magazine. (It beat out “Seinfeld,” “M*A*S*H,” “All in the Family” and “Cheers.”)
After a six-month run in L.A., Broadway in Chicago picked up “I Love Lucy Live on Stage” for an autumn 2012 installation in the 552-seat theater at Water Tower Place, with Irwin and her L.A. Ricky (Bill Mendieta) joined by an all-new Chicago supporting cast, including veteran character actors Curtis Pettyjohn and Joanna Daniels as Fred and Ethel Mertz.
Good box office has now led to a second run at the Broadway Playhouse, where the audience members find themselves participating in two live-on-TV studio performances. The show is co-adapted, staged, directed by Rick Sparks.
“It’s as if you’re going back to 1952 when you walk through the doors,” says Irwin. “Actors are with the crowd as they come in, and there is an emcee like they had back in the day. The warm-up guy is really in my estimation the hub of the wheel, because he sort of runs the show, and there are all kinds of commercial jingles and audience involvement between two exact episodes that will seem very familiar to everybody.”
For the record, the two episodes are “The Benefit,” from Season 1, and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” from Season 3. In the first, Lucy finds a hilarious way to take revenge for her embarrassingly small part in a variety show, and in the second, it’s the eye drops that take their revenge on her.
Irwin points out that “The Benefit” is based on an episode of “My Favorite Husband,” an old CBS Radio show that ran from 1948-51 and starred Lucille Ball with Richard Denning as her husband instead of Desi Arnaz. The radio show was the genesis for “I Love Lucy,” and Irwin considers those three years to be crucial to the title character’s development.
“In listening to the radio episodes I thought that Lucy is wonderful and funny but, somehow, something is not quite blossomed yet,” Irwin says. “It was a great gift, that radio show, to help Lucille find her way into that character — who Lucy is, how she tries to get into stuff, what her relationship to her husband is. When they ultimately decided to take it to television, even some of the same writers stayed on, with the main difference that Lucille stood her ground and said, ‘I want Desi to play my husband.’ But they had had all this time to grow it. A lot of things don’t get that kind of time these days.”
The weekly Lucy shows followed a five-day formula of preparation, according to Irwin: “They’d get the script on Day 1 for a table reading and shoot on Day 5, and I think it was (head-writer) Jess Oppenheimer who said in his book that anyone who was at the first day reading would say, ‘You need to get rid of the redhead. She’s not funny.’ But the thing about her was she would work so hard the next four days that it would be comic brilliance when it came time to shoot it in front of an audience.
“I don’t think you cannot not be funny and do what Lucille Ball did, but she didn’t think of herself as funny.”
In L.A., Irwin performs frequently on the sketch comedy scene — “little skits, three to five minutes long, often character-based, with a funny moment, often physical.” Irwin also does a lot of work for animation, including many of the utility voices in “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The vocal flexibility demanded by such work was actually a help, she says, in finding Lucy’s voice.
Although the script of “I Love Lucy Live on Stage” is frozen, Irwin and her colleagues continue to tweak aspects of their performance. “Whether something is funny or not comes down to half a second in terms of timing,” she says. “We all have to work at it. It makes you appreciate what they did back then. I’ve been doing the same two episodes for months, and they did one a week.”
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Lucy trivia: Test yourself at the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Center for Comedy
- Details about “The Benefit”: Go to tv.com
- Radio precursor to “The Benefit”: Listen to ‘Charity Review,’ episode 32 of “My Favorite Husband”
- Details about “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined”: Go to tv.com
Captions and credits: Home page and above right: Sirena Irwin plays everyone’s favorite redhead. (Photo by Ed Krieger) From top: Chicago actors Joanna Daniels, left, and Curtis Pettyjohn, right, are Ethel and Fred Mertz to Irwin’s Lucy. (Justin Barbin) Sirena Irwin publicity photo. Irwin as Lucy in a crying snit. (Justin Barbin) Bill Mendieta as Ricky Ricardo at the Tropicana. (Hyra George) Irwin in Lucy’s classic schemer pose. (Ed Krieger)
Tags: Bill Mendieta, Broadway in Chicago, Broadway Playhouse, Curtis Pettyjjohn, Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy, I Love Lucy Live on Stage, Jess Oppenheimer, Joanna Danials, Lucille Ball, Lucy Has Her Eyes Examnined, Lucy Ricardo, My Favorite Husband, Rick Sparks, Ricky Ricardo, Sirena Irwin, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Benefit