Somebody has some ’splaining to do.
“I Love Lucy” is inarguably one of the top television sitcoms of all time. The 1950s standard bearer regularly lands in first place, or at least the top five, on any such list. In its heyday, 70 percent of households with TVs tuned in. Sixty years on, millions still watch reruns.
Anyone who would dare mess with such an ironclad pop-culture paragon by turning it into a live theater show would have to possess the chutzpah of, well, Lucille Ball herself. Yet the touring production of “I Love Lucy: Live on Stage,” opening Tuesday at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, is just that — with some shrewd adjustments that capitalize on a theatrical setting.
Instead of merely attempting to re-create classic plotlines — thus inviting the audience to constantly compare the actors onstage with Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel (the Mount Rushmore of midcentury comedy) — writer/director Rick Sparks has set up the show to make people feel as if they’re among the TV series’ live studio audience during the shooting of two classic episodes, both aptly dealing with Lucy’s perennial passion — breaking into show business.
In “The Benefit,” from the show’s first season, Ethel asks Lucy to get Ricky to headline a fundraiser, which Lucy agrees to do if she can be part of the act. In “Lucy Gets Her Eyes Examined,” from Season 3, Lucy finally gets a dancing part in Ricky’s show, only to emerge from the optometrist’s office half-blinded by eyedrops.
Song-and-dance endorsements for products such as Brylcreem and Alka-Seltzer fill the gaps between scenes.
The live show might bathe attendees of a certain age in nostalgic reverie, but let’s hope it’s also a reminder of what cultural pioneers Lucy and her sidekick Ethel were. Long before Mary and Rhoda, Laverne and Shirley or the “Sex and the City” quartet of gal pals, those two had each other’s back.
The script is adapted from the original teleplays. A stickler for following scripts to the letter, Ball used to bristle at suggestions that the show included any ad libbing. A testament to the strength of the original writing is that unlike that of other shows of the period, the humor doesn’t seem painfully dated.
Can jokes from an era when Lucy had to say she was “expecting” rather than the far racier “pregnant” on the air satisfy modern theatergoers used to the ribald vulgarity of “Spamalot”? Sure. Today’s sitcoms are rife with pop-culture references of the moment that will fade into head-scratchers for future generations, but the laughs in “I Love Lucy” — think assembly-line candy wrapping, grape stomping and fake-nose melting — are truly timeless.
All scoffers need do is call up any random scene on YouTube and try not to smile.