Hayes Theatre Co, March 22
Elise McCann is a real delight in Everybody Loves Lucy, her cabaret show about Lucille Ball, giving a beautifully pitched, thoroughly engaging performance, which sees her shining brighter than the show itself.
Ball began her career on Broadway, played some small roles in Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s and then, together with her Cuban musician husband Desi Arnaz (with whom she eloped in 1940), changed the face of television comedy with her seminal sitcom I Love Lucy.
Running for six years from 1951 and then a further three years in various incarnations under titles including The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, I Love Lucy was the most popular TV show in the US at one point.
An astute businesswoman behind the scenes, Ball became the first woman to run a major television studio in 1962. Meanwhile, early in her career, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated her links to communism.
It’s too big a life to fit into a one-hour cabaret so McCann and co-writer Richard Carroll have sensibly focused on the I Love Lucy years.
Set in the TV studio, Everybody Loves Lucy avoids using a narrative voice to tell us about her career (a common device in cabaret and often a clunky one). Instead the show traces the development of the pioneering sitcom through various vignettes and a series of comedy sketches.
In one scene, we see Ball negotiate her way to becoming the first woman to appear on screen pregnant – or “expecting” as conservative television executives preferred to put it.
The show also goes behind-the-scenes where the pressures on Ball’s marriage and family life (she and Arnaz had two children she saw little of) were such that as soon as the sitcoms with Arnaz ended in 1960, she filed for divorce.
Without actually impersonating Ball, McCann captures a vivid sense of the famously ditzy, redheaded housewife Ball portrayed on screen, nailing her zany brand of vaudevillian comedy with its clown-like physicality. She also conveys a strong sense of the era.
Her comic timing is spot-on throughout. Some of the skits are funnier than others – mainly because much of the humour is now so dated – but she is hilarious in a sketch promoting a health tonic with a mouthful-of-a-name, which becomes increasingly unpronounceable as she takes swigs of the alcohol-laced concoction.
McCann also plays a housewife, in frilly apron, who is a huge fan of I Love Lucy. It’s a clever way to indicate the huge following the show had, as well as its impact, particularly on women, with the housewife beginning to think that maybe she too could take on some part-time work.
Musical director Nigel Ubrihien (sporting a dreadful black wig) does a good job of characterising Arnaz and also voices other characters including the studio executives from the piano.
Ball was no singer and there are few songs associated with her, so McCann and Ubrihien have chosen a series of numbers from the era to relate to moments in the show including Be a Clown at the beginning and Make Someone Happy, which is used as something of a theme through the show. Though McCann sings beautifully, the songs aren’t terribly memorable on the whole or particularly moving.
The show itself breezes along but often feels rather cursory, touching on topics, ticking off moments, but without really mining the drama in them. So much is dealt with so quickly that there’s not a great deal of insight into Ball as a person and emotional moments don’t land as strongly as they might.
The show assumes some knowledge of Ball; if you didn’t know anything about her, or had never seen I Love Lucy, I’m not sure that you would fully appreciate her impact as a comedienne.
Director Helen Dallimore stages the show well, using a dressing table on one side for the backstage scenes, and an armchair, table and lamp on the other for the housewife’s. Tim Chappel has designed a dress that transforms itself in an instant with a flap that drops to become an apron, and Christopher Horsey’s choreography suits the style and era.
Though Everybody Loves Lucy feels underwritten at times, McCann is a wonderful draw-card, giving a very enjoyable performance that confirms her considerable talent. I can’t wait to see her as Miss Honey in Tim Minchin’s musical Matilda, opening in Sydney in August.
Everybody Loves Lucy runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 28. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337