There have been few comedians capable of leaving an untouchable mark on pop culture and television - but if there is one who undoubtedly has, it was the indelible Lucille Ball. Sirena Irwin was the woman chosen to bring the legendary lady to life in I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON THE STAGE, the woman chosen to don the fashionable 50s garb, to make the physicality and verbal comedy of Ball her own.
“In 1951 I LOVE LUCY was tickling people, and now in 2012 it still is,” she said. “How great is that? How great is it to do something that has that sort of affect.”
I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE, now playing at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place with a new block of tickets recently made available for Dec. 29 - March 3, 2013, is an adapted musical piece based off of two quintessential I LOVE LUCY episodes.
The show originated in Los Angeles, opening in 2011 at the 99-seater Greenway Court Theatre, with Irwin and co-star Bill Mendieta playing Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. The show enjoyed a near sold-out run, with the two stars earning universal praise from critics and audiences alike.
But initially taking on the role of Lucy Ricardo was admittedly a little daunting for Irwin, who had worked with director Rick Sparks on a number of other shows in California.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience with I LOVE LUCY,” she said. “So I took to grindstone. I had my work cut out for me. I wasn’t like, ‘What?! What? Who’s Lucy?!’ I just wanted to really examine what she was doing and I wanted to understand why the funny bits were so funny.”
Irwin took the task seriously - likening studying Ball to earning a PhD in comedy - watching every episode on the DVD box set, examining and re-examing the show’s scripts.
“I looked at where Lucy went and when she went there,” Irwin said. “And she went against the norm. Watching [the episodes] expanded my mind - it blew my mind. It continues to blow my mind.”
But even with her ad-hock PhD in comedy, Irwin knew it didn’t matter how much she studied Ball, the interpretation of Lucy Ricardo as a character was key to making the show a success, and above all, believable.
“Everyone has an image of Lucille Ball, and there’s only one Lucille Ball,” she said. “[Sparks and the producers] didn't want an impersonation - they wanted Lucy Ricardo to come to life in a very real way. So I try to keep everything based in truth to keep it grounded.”
Ball is largely considered one of the greatest pioneers for female comedians, winning four Emmys, a Golden Globe, and more during her career which spanned half a century. I LOVE LUCY ran from 1951-1957 on CBS, and co-starred the actress’ real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.
“People have so many connections to her and the show,” Irwin said. “I didn’t want to mar their memories. It’s a huge gift to play the role and be able to take the time with her.”
Both Irwin and Mendieta were on board when the producers announced the show would be packing up and moving to Chicago for its Midwestern premiere - filling the remaining roles, such as Fred and Ethel Mertz, with native Illinoisans.
“I’m a gypsy child. The more adventure, change, movement in life, the better,” Irwin said.
Irwin’s natural love for new people and experiences has allowed her settle in nicely to the town, she said.
“I love Chicago. It’s like a cross between LA and New York. There’s so much culture, from theaters to museums. It’s a fantastic town with unlimited opportunities."
Another stitch in the silver lining for the actress?
"I’m just delighted not to always be in a car anymore!”
And though traveling keeps Irwin feeling alive - there was a period of eight years in LA when she was settled, calling it “static” - she is a true humanitarian at heart, who has the conviction to end poverty and hunger, though recognizes that only one person can do so much.