Sixty-three years ago this week — at 9 p.m. Oct. 15, 1951 — TV viewers got their first look at a situation comedy on CBS that, in short order, would become part of the country's cultural DNA.
The focal point of the show was the redheaded title character, Lucy Ricardo (even in black and white, you could somehow tell the color of her hair); her Cuban-born husband, Ricky, leader of a dance band at a New York club; and their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz, landlords of the brownstone apartment building on the Upper East Side where they all laughed, loved, fought and schemed.
By now, several generations have been exposed to the 179 original episodes of "I Love Lucy" starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley, perennially running in syndication. That means there's a hefty pool of potential customers for something called "I Love Lucy Live on Stage," which opens a two-week run at the Hippodrome on Tuesday.
The production promises a sort of time-machine experience. Theatergoers become the live studio audience for the filming of two "I Love Lucy" episodes, one from the first of the show's six seasons ("The Benefit"), the other from the third ("Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined").
The roots for this venture can be traced to a 2001 touring exhibition that marked the 50th anniversary of "I Love Lucy," featuring memorabilia and re-creations of the original sets for the TV show. The tour's producers decided to build on this nostalgia wave by finding a way to use those sets for a stage vehicle.
In 2010, Rick Sparks, an actor, director and writer whose credits include an adaptation of "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" learned about the project.
"Gabriel's horn went off in my head," he says. "I knew I must be a part of this. It was so ripe with theatrical possibilities."
What emerged was the concept of re-creating two "I Love Lucy" episodes, along with extra material around the edges — a host to warm up the audience and explain details of the TV filming; a vocal group to sing advertising jingles — in an effort to conjure up an early-1950s milieu.
The production premiered three years ago in Los Angeles with direction and musical staging by Sparks. Joining him as co-adapter was Kim Flagg, a writer for the current sitcom "Last Man Standing." The duo's first task was picking the episodes for the production.
"We did complete notes on each episode," Sparks says. "Some are impossible to stage, because they have too many characters; some don't have all four leads in them. Kim brought to the fore the two episodes we eventually chose. They are not iconic ones, but that actually works to our benefit. People start remembering them as they go along."
"The Benefit" and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" have some key ingredients in common. Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel get plenty to do, including musical numbers, which was a feature Sparks was particularly keen on including in the stage production. And both episodes depend on one of the most often recurring themes in the TV series — Lucy trying to break into show business.
Having freshly transcribed scripts ("We took some artistic license," Sparks says) and the duplicated sets for the Ricardos' apartment ("Meticulous, right down to the Asian figurines and the matchbox on the fireplace") was half the battle. Finding a cast was the other.
Since the 2011 L.A. premiere and a subsequent run in Chicago, a new foursome has been assembled for the touring production that opened in Miami a couple of weeks ago. Baltimore is the tour's second stop.
"We had a tough audition search in Chicago, New York and L.A.," Sparks says.
When actress and singer Thea Brooks found about the auditions, she decided to try out for the role of Lucy. And try. And try again. She was called back six times in all.
"When I finally got the job, I figured I must deserve this," she says. "I felt such a kinship with Lucy in terms of comedy. Today, TV is more about heady humor — shows like 'The Office' and 'Parks and Recreation.' I jumped at the opportunity to do broader comedy, slapstick."
In addition to Brooks, the production features Kevin Remington as Fred, Lori Hammel as Ethel and, in a neat nod to the past, Cuban-American actor Euriamis Losada to portray the role created by the Cuban-American Arnaz.
"To embody beloved characters is tricky," Sparks says. "I told the cast that for the first three, four minutes, the audience is going to sit there and be disappointed. It is an inevitable human wish to see replicas onstage."
Brooks doesn't aim for a total imitation of Lucille Ball's indelible portrayal.
"You have to be recognizable as Lucy, but I also love to bring myself to the role," Brooks says. "If I don't bring my own humor to it, it wouldn't be funny; it wouldn't fly. You just have to find the right balance."
The 29-year-old actress did not grow up watching reruns of the Ricardos and Mertzes. The closest she came was seeing some "I Love Lucy" magnets on the refrigerator at home.
"I didn't have television when I was a kid — my parents were hippies," she says. "I never looked at the show until I was in college. As soon as I saw an episode, I thought: I've been missing out. Lucy was so brilliant, not just for her era, but for any era. The show is so timeless."
Sparks, now in his late 50s, recalls that his favorite sitcom as a child was NBC's "I Married Joan."
"I had an ongoing battle with a next-door neighbor who preferred 'Lucy,' " he says. "One day I finally took a long look at 'Lucy' and realized how wrong I was."
With its additional elements surrounding the re-created episodes, "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" aims to be a theatrical event in its own right. But the principal goal, Sparks says, is homage.
"The press doesn't always seem to get that," he says. "Some of them want the show to be reality-based, bio-based. It's not. It's supposed to be a Valentine to 'I Love Lucy.' I like to think Desi, Lucy, Bill and Vivian are looking down and smiling."