Richardson — For just about anybody with any awareness of 20th century American culture, the title The Cuban and the Redhead instantly brings to mind Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the iconic apartment-dwelling, urban postwar couple at the heart of America’s first mega-hit sitcom, I Love Lucy. Flawed and fascinating, I Love Lucy held the weekly attention of Americans gathered around their newly acquired television sets for six years, providing the primary gateway drug for our national addiction to screens. And, for well over half a century, it has continued to capture new generations of viewers, at first through televised reruns and today with internet presence.
But before there was I Love Lucy, with its god-like immortality via reruns and digital preservation, there was the very real married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Robert Bartley and Donny Whitman’s newborn musical The Cuban and the Redhead, currently running in its premiere production by Pegasus Theatre at Richardson’s Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts, brilliantly delves into the tangled, troubled, and always passionate relationship of Ball and Arnaz, from the beginnings of their separate but eventually intertwined struggle for success in pre-television Hollywood, to that magical moment when they became Lucy and Ricky, transforming television and American culture forever.
The Cuban and the Redhead provides a worthy addition to that noble tradition of musicals inspired by the lives of great entertainers, a lineage including Gypsy, Funny Girl, Jersey Boys, and Dreamgirls. Beneath its almost operatically complex plotline, it’s a boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl story—except that the boy in question is an alcoholic (albeit loveable) sex addict, their breakup involves miscarriage and a near-divorce, and the happy ending depicted in the show will eventually fall apart in a final real divorce.
Bartley and Whitman have handled all of this magnificently, creating, in their fictionalized versions of Ball and Arnaz, a pair of richly textured characters, hounded by personal tragedy and driven by obsessive ambition, and far more stormy and intense than the sitcom Lucy and Ricky.
Played with hard-as-nails resilience by Leslie Stevens, the Lucille Ball of this musical version betrays friends, grovels before studio barons, and does whatever it takes to get her name in lights as the “Queen of the Bees”—B-movies, that is. When skirt-chasing Arnaz falls in love with her, she responds with defensive and sometimes hilarious cynicism; even though we know she will eventually succumb, her surrender to Arnaz’s charms is made wonderfully convincing and suspenseful via a carefully paced script, Stevens’ carefully timed delivery, and the show’s central musical number, “Dance with Me.”
Though Stevens’ résumé includes some impressive musical items, this version of Lucille Ball, like the real person, shies away from challenging singing and dancing, though Stevens delivers well in the scant material the role contains along those lines. Instead, this version of Lucille Ball has her greatest moment as a Buster Keaton-style clown—which was the real Ball’s forte, and which Stevens portrays winningly at the pivotal moment in the show.
Of course, the character of Desi Arnaz has to sing and dance, besides being drop-dead handsome, all of which requirements Storm Lineberger meets nicely. Bartley and Whitman give this character a series of challenging musical numbers, and Lineberger has the range and just plain gorgeous voice to make them all work. Lineberger swaggers with the same seductive charm the real Arnaz brought to the role of Ricky Ricardo, while letting us see the haunted Casanova beneath Arnaz’s glossy surface. This emerges most tellingly in the frankly phallic symbolism of “A Cuban Cigar.”
The deep friendship between the real Lucille Ball and the glamorous Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash in 1942, provides a key element in the script, and, though the character of Lombard is necessarily a secondary role, Barley and Whitman gave her two great songs, including the show-stopper “I Remember,” soaringly belted by Janelle Lutz.
Among the secondary players, Sheila D. Rose performs as Arnaz’s saintly and patient mother Lolita, while Myiesha Duff provides a similar function as Ball’s dressing-room assistant and confidant Gladys. Matt Ransdell, Jr., serves as a steadfast partner and sidekick for Arnaz, while Stephen Bates cycles through multiple secondary roles, often as a one-man, discouraging Greek chorus onlooker to Arnaz’s struggles.
Author-composer Bartley also directed and choreographed the production with a sensible focus on character and plot development rather than spectacular choreography; he employs a strikingly simple, almost dreamlike technique in an extended scene in which Arnaz transforms from an impoverished immigrant on the streets of Miami into a popular New York band-leader. Amelia Bronsky has designed simple, unobtrusive sets, though the introduction of the iconic beveled doorways for the final scene, as the initial production of I Love Lucy gets underway, is a stroke of design genius. Bruce R. Coleman has designed efficient period-style costumes (most strikingly for the Carole Lombard character).
The small offstage orchestra, completely concealed in a side balcony, likewise accompanies efficiently under the direction of Christopher D. Littlefield, though it would be nice to hear some of this fine musical material in a richer, less digital orchestration. While Bartley and Whitman’s score breaks no new ground musically, the synthesis of traditional Broadway styles with hints of mid-century jazz and Latin band music is successful, right down to the inevitable final quote of that unforgettable and unmistakable four-note I Love Lucy motif.
The choice of subject matter is brave, and here takes on the complexity and profundity it deserves. I Love Lucy broke barriers: in 1951, a Yankee white girl with a Cuban husband was a shocking inter-racial couple, as was the presence of an obviously pregnant woman onscreen. At the same time, the irony that Ball, a great comic actor and possessor of uncanny business acumen, achieved her greatest success playing a housewife who couldn’t drive a car or balance a checkbook is clearly not lost on Bartley and Whitman.
The Cuban and the Redhead has the potential for durability and success beyond this premiere production; at just short of three hours, it’s a lengthy evening of musical theater, not a minute of which, however, is wasted. Constantly entertaining and thought-provoking, it explores the tribulations, compulsions, and rise to fame of a couple who, onscreen and off, epitomized an era.