I was a HUGE dork growing up. One prime example of this fact is that I loved everything on Nick on Nite. Every night I put my TV on TV Land in hopes of catching TV classics like Mr. Ed, Dick Van Dyke, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Patty Duke Show, the Munsters and Laverne and Shirley. I adored these classic comedies, but the show I looked forward to most and watched religiously was I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball was the most hilarious person I had ever seen and my Mom and I spent many nights watching marathons of old episodes and laughing the night away.
When I was about ten years old I came across some old I Love Lucy paraphernalia while on vacation and had to have it. I don’t think I have ever been so excited about a purchase in my life! It was two tin lunch boxes with scenes from my favorite show and they quickly became my most prized possessions. As the years passed, Lucy collectibles became more and more popular and soon everyone I knew was buying me “Lucy” stuff for every holiday. By the time I was 16, my entire room was decked out in I Love Lucy collectibles (told you…huge dork).
During my first year of college I actually entered a Halloween costume contest dressed as Lucy from the famous “Vitameatavegamin” episode. I had my own bottle of vitameatavegamin and reenacted the entire scene…seriously, can’t make this stuff up.
I am admitting these humiliating details of my life so when I tell you how excited I was about not only going to see the traveling production of “I Love Lucy: Live on Stage“, but getting to interview the stars of the show dressed in their full costume and make-up, you understand that I was truly over the moon with this opportunity.
“I Love Lucy: Live on Stage” is currently showing at TPAC (the Tennessee Performing Arts Center) in Nashville until February 2nd. Opening week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sirena Irwin (Lucy Ricardo) and Bill Mendieta (Ricky Ricardo). I met with the two stars of the show on their lunch break and got to know a bit about their life, background in theatre and Lucy experience with a couple other local reporters. (BTW: they were very chatty.)
Me: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background before becoming Lucy and Ricky?
Sirena: Let’s see, I have been involved in comedy out in L.A. for a while and have done lots of work in cartoons. I was lucky enough to be cast on Spongebob Squarepants. I’m still on that show, thankfully, I play Spongebob’s Mom, Mr. Crab’s Mom and basically any random women on the show. From that, I started doing many other shows…Batman, the Brave and the Bold, HollyHobby, etc, etc. Besides that, I always did theatre in L.A., which for me is just a place that I love. I always did at least one, maybe two productions a year. I’ve done sketch comedy and improv and even worked with Rick Sparks, our director of I Love Lucy, a few times. He actually called me up and asked if I wanted to audition for the role and I said “of course”! I went in and prepared “Vitameatavegamin”, a song, and was prepared for some improv. I came at a real deficit because I didn’t have a deep understanding of I Love Lucy. I didn’t even grow up with a television. It wasn’t until I was in an acting class when a woman asked if I’d seen much I Love Lucy. I told her I hadn’t, but realized I really should. She then invited me to her home to borrow her own collection. Her name was Paula Stewart and she had played Lucille Ball’s younger sister in the Broadway play Wildcat. She told me a lot about her relationship with Lucille and showed me letters Lucy had written her and other personal artifacts. That is basically my journey up until this show.
Bill: My journey…I did a lot of theatre, I grew up in San Francisco with a family that is all involved in the arts, so performing is always something that we just did for each other. I did all types of theatre, but when I moved down to L.A. I got more involved in the TV and film business, but was still doing theatre. Before I did this, I did a production of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and that was really fun. I’ve done some directing over the years too and directed some comedies which has definitely helped with this project. When this came around and I saw a notice for the auditions I knew it was going to be a great script because it’s I Love Lucy. Of course Ricky has great material, and he gets to sing, and he gets to lead a band…this is going to be a really fun project. Originally, this was going to be a three-week project and I thought okay, cool, not much of a commitment, and now…
Me: 4 years later…here you are!
Bill: Right?! The show was first tested in Los Angeles where it did really well. We then moved to Chicago, where it was a great success, and bringing on a National tour seemed to be the next logical step. The cast has changed a little from place to place, but we have also become a family. It’s been such a great experience.
Sirena: He’s right. Playing this role for so many years and for so many audiences has been a real lesson in comedy. Just getting to know the show, the characters and stepping into these roles has been like a degree in comedy. Doing this live we get instant feedback and we know if we hit it just right or if we are a beat off. We never tire of it because every show and every audience is different.
Me (to Bill): So, were you a Lucy fan at all growing up?
Bill: We watched the show as a family like we watched lots of classic comedies, but as a child I felt so frustrated with Lucy! I always thought “Why did she do that? They could be rich! They could do this or that, she is ruining everything!”
Me: And, now that’s your job!
Bill: I know! And, that’s the point of situational comedy. But, I did always think that Ricky Ricardo was very cool.
Other Reporter: What was the process after getting these two roles?
Sirena: After I received the call from Rick Sparks, saying I got the part, I tried to talk him out of it. “Are you sure you don’t want an impersonator or someone who has lived with this longer than me?” I felt like I was coming at such a deficit. Ultimately, they wanted to give ma shot, and I had a lot of work to do, but I really owe a lot to do them to have given me this opportunity and trusted me to do the work and learn this role. I’ve read, and am still reading, Lucy books every evening.
Another reporter: And can you tell us a little about the show?
Sirena: Rick Sparks really wanted this to be a Valentine to I Love Lucy, but also a love letter to the beginning of the television era. He wants the audience to come in and understand what it’s like to watch the show being shot live in front of them.
Bill: They shot the show with three cameras in front of a live audience, and it was the first time anything like had been done. It was ground-breaking at the time. So, now, in our show the audience will see cameras and little scenes between the shots, like they’re really watching a sitcom being filmed.
Me: So, did you watch and study lots of old episodes to prepare for your roles?
Sirena: I’m sure the two of us have each seen every episode, and many multiple times. They never lose their comedy. For me, the one where she tells Ricky she’s pregnant is so moving! That’s what keeps us coming back; it’s so honest, connected, truthful and yet funny. For me, that ticks all of the boxes.
Bill: The fact that they were also actually married, makes it a very unique blend of reality and fantasy.
Another reporter: Why do you think I Love Lucy: Live on Stage is so successful and resonates with so many people?
Sirena: One thing we hear from the audience is that they actually feel like they’ve been taken back in time and are able to see the filming of this show.
Bill: That’s what theatre does, it gives you that suspension of disbelief and allows you to step into that world for 2 hours. It offers two different experiences: If you are fans of the show it allows you to imagine what it may have been like to experience the filming or if you are just getting to know it, you get a little bit of history of TV and I Love Lucy. It’s also just a great love story between Lucy and Ricky, you the see the complexities and the comedy in their relationship which is why it’s still a success even on TV today.
We ended our interview shortly after this statement. The two stars needed lunch and we were escorted to the stage to find our spot before a special mini-performance. There was a gala going on inside the theatre and Lucy and Ricky were going to surprise the guests with a 10-minute skit.
Ricky entered the stage first singing the lyrics to their famous theme song and Lucy soon joined him, singing off-key and trying to find her way into the spotlight. They performed a hilarious skit that included bits and pieces from a famous episode, as well as the Live on Stage performance. It was great and it really was like watching Lucy and Ricky perform together. Bill and Sirena have such chemistry and have managed to completely transform into their characters.