IF YOU GO
What: “An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking”
When: Wednesday through April 17 (times vary)
Where: 14th Street Theatre, 2037 E. 14th St., Cleveland
Tickets: $10 to $39.50; call 216-241-6000 or 866-546-1353, or go to PlayhouseSquare.org
By John Benson
Among the many par- adoxes of fame and celebrity that successful performers deal with is stage image versus real-life personality. Audiences will forever expect television stars Henry Winkler to act like The Fonz or for Jason Alexander to be neurotic George Costanza.
In a nutshell, it’s this dichotomy that fuels the relatively new touring one-woman theater production “An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking,” which comes to Cleveland Wednesday through April 17 at PlayhouseSquare’s 14th Street Theatre. Created and performed by Suzanne LaRusch, and written by LaRusch and Ball’s daughter Lucie Arnaz, the show explores and re-creates the comic genius behind the “Queen of Comedy.”
“It’s Lucille Ball 1974 and she’s on her way to do a Q&A at a community college, which she was quite famous for during that time,” said Arnaz, who also directs the show, calling from her Connecticut home. “Her third series, ‘Here’s Lucy Show’ had just stopped production, and she had just finished filming the movie ‘Mame.’ She thinks she’ll spend a couple of hours with people, answering questions, but it turns into something quite different; sort of a primal scream, therapy, re-think of her life. The people there expect her to be Lucille Ricardo (from ‘I Love Lucy’) and she’s going to come with the conveyor belt and do all of these things. This is very upsetting to her because, of course, she can’t do that. That’s not what she’s there to do.”
Therein lies the rub that gives “An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking” its spark. Arnaz said throughout her mother’s life she would be confronted with the reality that the “Queen of Comedy,” the woman who undoubtedly created the sitcom archetype that still dominates prime time television half a century later, was not necessarily a funny lady in person.
“It creates this constant conflict for my mother, people thinking she’s just funny all the time,” Arnaz said. “She’d say all the time, ‘I’m not funny,’ which is of course ludicrous, but she meant ‘I don’t just think funny. I had these brilliant things that writers wrote for me.’ So the Lucy that comes out during this show gives audiences a little bit more than what they’re expecting.
“It’s all done without conveyor belts and wine stomping vats and all that stuff. But the convention of the show, which is very smart, is once you’re asking and answering questions, your mind goes back to the time you’re talking about and then you can actually make it happen on stage.”
The result is “An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking” guides audiences through the lifetime of personal memories inspiring the legend’s timeless sketches on “I Love Lucy,” her 30-year television career and some never-before heard personal recollections about her tempestuous and complicated marriage to Cuban bandleader turned impresario, Desi Arnaz.
Overall Arnaz is pretty confident her mother would approve of the new show as a way to not only keep her name in the spotlight but also give audiences an insider’s view to her career.
“This is what she always wanted people to see and to know,” Arnaz said. “The best quote I heard from anybody was this lady who came out of the theater and said, ‘It’s nothing like what I expected, and I loved it.’ That’s true. People think they’re going to see something else. When you say an ‘Evening with Lucille Ball,’ I don’t know what they think but for some reason they think we said, ‘An Evening with Lucy Ricardo.’ And that’s what the show is about, the people thinking she’s going to do shtick. It’s very unique to watch the audience be the actual audience we’re talking about.”
Finally, on paper it would seem as though “An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking” would be tailor-made for a biopic feature film. Arnaz doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think so,” Arnaz said. “This works really good on stage, and there have been enough of those damn biopics anyway.”