Offstage Sirena Irwin and Bill Mendieta aren’t immediately recognizable as the characters they’ve played for two years in “I Love Lucy Live on Stage.” She’s blond, he’s mellow, and there’s no crazy redhead or hotheaded bandleader anywhere in sight. And yet the Ricardos — they’re not playing the real-life Arnazes in the show — are also right there in the coffeehouse, apparent in his slick, thick black mane and her impossibly expressive eyebrows, even when they aren’t etched on
Lucy-like for a performance.
The pair have been friends since their college days in San Francisco; in fact, Mendieta helped recommend Irwin for the part. Now they’re married onstage and on the road together, with Boston their next stop. “I Love Lucy” opens Tuesday at the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre and runs through Dec. 22.
But both know it’s the iconic redhead — the Lucy in “Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do!” — that has the audience’s heart to keep, or lose.
“The first time I saw her as Lucy, I was very pleased,” Mendieta said.
“Not pleased as punch, just pleased,” added Irwin, laughing.
Mendieta: “When they started to put the wigs and everything on her, and when we could see her transformed physically, [we thought] all right, this is it, she’s got great eyes and great eyebrows . . . ”
Irwin: “He’s a notorious eyebrow man.”
And so it goes, playful and yet serious underneath. Irwin in particular understands what she has taken on in attempting to embody Lucy. After all, “I Love Lucy” became “We Love Lucy,” and Lucille Ball’s face and farce have appeared continuously on TV, first live and then in reruns, since 1951. And yet, oh irony, Irwin somehow managed to miss it. Her family didn’t have a TV.
“When [they] called and said, ‘We’d like to offer you the part,’ ” I had mixed emotions,” Irwin said. “One was extreme excitement, and the other was a sinking stomach, like, Oh no. I said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know this character at all.’ ”
Irwin, however, appears to have held her own. Reviews have been stellar, shows sold out. The theatrical version of “I Love Lucy” aims to re-create the experience of being in a live TV audience. What’s onstage actually are episodes of the show that starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. There’s no unmasking of off-screen scandals or private lives. Instead, it’s a replica of the wacky, fictional world adored by generations.
Mendieta said he once had a girlfriend who mentioned that he reminded her of Ricky. But Irwin said she had never been compared to Lucy until she took a professional acting class and, shortly before auditioning, met a friend of Ball, who gifted her with a box of old VHS cassette tapes of the comedienne. Problem was Irwin couldn’t watch them because she didn’t have a VHS player. But Irwin says she can see the similarities now, both in mannerisms and demeanor.
“I think the thing that I see that might be a parallel thing is that we’re not afraid of anything,” Irwin said. “We’ll go anywhere. We don’t care about coming off as ugly. There’s a certain thing that I love about Lucy: wild abandon. And so that I saw.”
Irwin, 36, has the sort of background that bolsters bravery, or at least an ability to wing it. She grew up as a self-described gypsy, traveling between parents who split up when she was a baby and having experiences that included living in a VW bus in Mexico and Guatemala with her father, his girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s two children, and then meeting up with her mother in Belgium. At one point there was a teepee.
Irwin says she can count around 10 schools she attended, including the Smith College Campus School in Northampton and most of 11th grade and then 12th grade at Northfield Mount Hermon, a private boarding school in Western Massachusetts. (Her mother is a musician and college professor who founded the Arcadia Players baroque orchestra; her father is a physicist who settled in Colorado. Irwin, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son, considers Northampton, Boulder, and San Francisco her homes.)
The nomadic childhood, of course, would serve any actor well, and Irwin is no exception. She’s had guest roles on television, and is the voice of Mrs. SquarePants on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” among other voice-over work. But Lucy is clearly her breakout role. To the poofy red wig she appears born. She’s even learned to sing badly for the part, since there was a reason Ricky didn’t want Lucy in his Tropicana nightclub show.
“We were not looking for impersonators at all,” said Kim Flagg, producer and co-adaptor of the show. “We were looking for great stage actors who can bring the essence of these characters and capture the spirit of them.
“We knew going in we were never going to find a Lucille Ball, so that was the trickiest,” Flagg added. “It does take a lot of grooming for that role, and Sirena spent a long of time getting it down to the point where it felt very natural, respectful, and doing The Redhead justice.”
Preparation, naturally, included a lot of TV and documentary viewing, for both Mendieta and Irwin. They read biographies and autobiographies. And then they put it all down and put on their costumes. As Mendieta put it, “There came a point when I couldn’t watch anymore because I had to see where it would develop in me.”
Mendieta, a San Francisco native, is part Mexican, part Guatemalan, part Spanish, part this and that, but not Cuban. What he got down first was Ricky’s sense of power as a bandleader. “He’s king when he’s in front of the band,” he said. “That’s his element. That’s his joy. [Whatever] else is happening in the world, it all goes away when he gets to sing — until she comes into the act.”
Irwin now has what her costar and longtime friend calls “Lucy-isms.”
“Me, too,” she said to him. “You remind me of Ricky so much these days.” Onstage, they both say, they feel like Ricky and Lucy, a real couple, zany as they may be. And on the rare occasion when they appear together in costume outside the theater — for a photo shoot while playing in Chicago, for instance — they say they can see heads turn and sense the thrill people of all ages feel at having familiar characters brought to life. Sometimes they feel it, too.
“There’s a little mirror on the mantel, and [as Lucy] I have to fix my hair for this dancing instructor that’s coming over,” Irwin said. “I love that moment. It’s like, Ooh. I don’t see me at all. That’s to me what I’ve always loved about acting. When I’m having the most fun is when I’m not there. I’m the vessel, but it’s egoless.”
Irwin and Mendieta, who both have other projects going during down time, are now hundreds and hundreds of performances into “I Love Lucy,” and have only missed one, when the producers pulled them out to do a number elsewhere in support of the show. (For the record, Irwin misses her 4-year-old son incessantly, despite long daily Skype sessions.)
“I don’t like missing a show; it’s so fun,” said Mendieta.
Added Irwin, who described her earlier self as “so culturally out of it” that college pals mocked her lack of knowledge of TV theme songs, “It’s a responsibility. I’m sacrificing my own family to bring this person to life, and I don’t take it lightly.”
She does, however, play it for laughs.