LAUGHS FOR LUCY 


The year 1977 is drawing to a close, and America's favorite redhead has fallen on hard times. The peak of her sitcom superstardom is decades behind her, and her comeback role in the movie musical Mame has drawn cruelly unfavorable comparisons with Broadway's Angela Lansbury. Worst of all, her New Year's Eve performance at Walt Disney World's tony Top of the World club has been bumped by a naval novelty act called Captain and Tennille. Lucky for Lucy, her agent has snagged her an almost-as-great gig at the nearby Parliament House Resort. The result, in local writer-director John Ryan's new play, Lucy Live!, becomes a bawdy biographical glimpse into the life of Lucille Ball Arnaz Morton. As her early rival Bette Davis said, "It's going to be a bumpy night!"

Lucy may never have played the P-House Footlight Theater, but nearly everything else in the script seems grounded in fact. The show centers on a semi-musical soliloquy that this faintly fictionalized Ball (Elizabeth T. Murff) delivers to the besotted revelers waiting to ring in 1978. Murff is mesmerizing in the role, completely convincing as she reels off Lucy's life story, stopping along the way to deliver a handful of songs and re-create familiar sketches. Ryan (author of Fringe festival hits My Pal Bette and New Rochelle) has stitched together quotes and anecdotes from Ball's rich life that may come as a surprise to all but hard-core fans. Most probably remember her long-running television success and tempestuous marriage to Desi Arnaz, but did you know she intercepted radio signals from Japanese spies through her dental fillings? She was a pioneer in more than just competitive chocolate consumption: As the first female head of a major Hollywood studio, she produced classic TV series including The Andy Griffith Show and Star Trek.

It's a pleasure watching Murff inhabit this comedy legend, and her fabulous wardrobe doesn't hurt either. But whenever Lucy isn't the focus, the show flounders. Her onstage sidekick (Steven Johnson) is mostly uninteresting, except for a "so unwatchable you can't stop watching" dance medley. The always-entertaining Sam Singhaus wastes his talent on scene-change-covering silliness. Murff is a stitch swigging spoonfuls of "Vitameatavegamin," but other gags involving cardboard stand-ins for Willam Frawley and Vivian Vance fall flat.

The pacing is awkwardly uneven, and the location-specific punch lines border on audience pandering. (If the inside jokes hadn't reminded me that I was at the Footlight Theater, the Ernest Hemingway lookalike shamelessly hitting on me would have.) This is a great match of subject and actress, and there's enough material here for a tight 45-minute monologue, but Lucy Live! is unlikely to reach a broader audience without significant revisions.

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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