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Theater Interview: Lucy, We’re Home With Performer Suzanne LaRusch

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CHICAGO – Suzanne LaRusch knows that it takes more than novelty to tell a good story. Or in the comedienne’s case, more than a healthy wollop of Vitameatavegamin. LaRusch, a seasoned impressionist, has teamed with Lucie Arnaz in the development of “An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You For Asking”, a solo endeavor that explores both the public celebrity and closed-door trials of the original Queen of Comedy.

Traversing the bridge between Lucy Ricardo and Lucille Ball, the production welcomes audiences into the never-before-published backstage stories that catapulted Ball to unprecedented fame, as well as into the tumultuous marriage that would eventually endure public scrutiny. LaRusch recently caught up with ShowBiz Chicago to discuss the process of delving into the famous red head’s life, both behind and in front of the rose-colored camera.

Suzanne LaRusch stars in “An Evening with Lucille Ball”
Suzanne LaRusch stars in “An Evening with Lucille Ball”.
Photo credit: www.AnEveningWithLucilleBall.com

HollywoodChicago: How did you initially begin your career as a Lucille Ball impressionist with Universal Studios?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): I view comedy and impressionism as two different things. I started my impressionist career at Universal Studios Hollywood but I’ve been an actress, if you will, since I was about eighteen months old when I did my first television commercial. I was a child actor and just kind of worked by way through getting the leads in community productions. I always had an emphasis in comedy, I always had a knack and love for that. I did a great deal of musical comedy in theatre during my journey before working for Universal in 1989. In 1990, they had opened a tribute to Lucille Ball which was a museum there. At that point I was doing different characters like Mae West and Marilyn Monroe and had been fascinated by that time, by that artistry. I proposed the idea for the character for the museum and the rest was history.

HollywoodChicago: What was your personal experience with Lucille Ball, or perhaps Lucy Ricardo, and her work growing up? How did her career and the timing of if influence your approach to performance?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): I gravitated to her even as a child because she was just so much fun to watch on television. We almost shared the same birthday, she’s August 6 and I’m August 7. So when I was growing up, they would do an “I Love Lucy” marathon on her birthday. I always thought they did that for my birthday [laughs]. I was quite small, I think. So I always looked forward to those marathons in August, they became regular events. I always loved her and found her comedic timing just incredible. I would begin to study her as an actress, not realizing or having an ambition at that time to emulate her.

HollywoodChicago: Your mannerisms and voices are almost identical to your subject. What was the process of studying Lucille Ball to create the air of impression?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): Well it was quite a process. When I started out I did my homework as any actor would, watching many of her tapes, interviews, and episodes of the “I Love Lucy” show that I began to know backwards and forwards. I studied her make-up and mannerisms. My mother was born and raised in Buffalo, New York and Lucille was born and raised about sixteen miles south of there in Jamestown, and I realized that my mother had very similar mannerisms to Lucille. It may be regional, and I caught that early on. So when I would exaggerate my mother’s mannerisms and voice inflections, people thought it was dead-on Lucy. So I found learning points like that along the way.

HollywoodChicago: How did “An Evening with Lucille Ball” initially come to develop and what was the process of revamping the material through the incubation?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): I have always considered myself an actress more than an impersonator, but I fell into that category working at Universal. But from the beginning I wanted to more than that because I found this woman’s life fascinating and I wanted to tell her story onstage. In 1997 I did my first rendition of what would later become the stage show, and did a presentation of her life story onstage. It was an ambitious presentation. I began to refine that and to find the right formula for that kind of storytelling. I always loved watching her interviews, like on the Merv Griffin Show, and she also did lectures and seminars which she loved. I got my hands on some of those tapes and was fascinated by watching the older Lucille talking about her career and her responses to the audience. And then I realized- that’s the formula, to tell her life story through one of these question-and-answer seminars.

That was eventually called “Thank You for Asking”. A few years later I reached out to Lucie Arnaz because we had been friends for years because of my previous work. I respected her opinion as an actress, and entertainer, and most importantly as Lucille’s daughter. One I wanted her blessing, but two I also wanted her notes so I could be sure I was telling the story correctly. She had been pursuing directing work at the time and the first thing she asked me was, “Who is directing your show?” And I said “Well, me?” Long story short, she came on board as a director and we re-worked the script together as collaborators.

HollywoodChicago: What was the process of both writing and curating the piece with Lucille’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): It was an interesting dynamic. I had to get used to her style very quickly, which I did. She and her husband who is a Broadway star as well and who produces our show had a different approach to acting than I did initially. So ultimately it was like going to school again, which was very fun. I worked and expanded my craft in that way with her. For the writing we literally sat on couches with pads in hand and went back and forth, putting in different bits and information.

HollywoodChicago: You had access to an array of interviews, books, and home videos concerning Lucille Ball, both her life and career. What was the process of selecting the material that would ultimately create “An Evening with Lucille Ball”?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): It really has been years of accumulating information from the different mediums you mentioned. But the deciding factors were really picking the subjects that I and ultimately Lucie, Jr. knew were topics people typically asked about it. Let’s talk about the chocolate factory, the grape-stomping, and of course Desi Arnaz. In between you throw in things people are not familiar with, such as she was the person to introduce the song [sings] “Hey Look Me Over” to the public. Lucie Arnaz sprinkled in some family secrets that had never been published before that gave insights into the soul of her mother. It is well-rounded now, I believe.

HollywoodChicago: Lucille Ball was one of the first major celebrities to have her personal life on view for the public, specifically with the downfall of her marriage. How did you work to balance these darker, more personal stories with the zany Lucy Ricardo that everyone knows?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): The only time you see Lucy Ricardo onstage is in two flashbacks in the first act, where she answers a question and there is a blackout and suddenly it is 1950. Other than that, it’s primarily Lucille Ball as a 63 year old woman in 1974 reminiscing about her life and career. The zaniness is only remembered, and she goes in and out of character which she did do. She’ll end bits by saying, “And that’s all I have to say about that. Bleh.” Otherwise it is all storytelling in the way she narrated stories. We do address the darkness, however, but in a way that is very honest. It comes up twice in the show, the second time displays more of the hurt that her marriage and those kinds of struggles affected her.

HollywoodChicago: What might people be surprised to learn about Lucille Ball in attending the performance?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): Well without giving too much away, I would say that audiences will learn her real feelings about her relationship with Desi Arnaz.

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
StarMore theater reviews from our other critics.

HollywoodChicago: After living through the experience night after night, what is one thing from Lucille Ball’s life that you have taken to heart in your own career?

Suzanne LaRusch (SL): Certainly what I’ve taken from having this career is that I just had the best damn teacher anyone could hope for. Even though I didn’t know her personally, she really was the best person to study to be a better actress and comedienne. She had a lot to look at and a lot to offer, and of course a magic about her that has been my pleasure to both study and emulate.

“An Evening with Lucille Ball” runs May 16, 2010 at The Venue at the Horseshoe Casino at 777 Casino Center Dr. in Hammond, IN. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit here.

For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

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