Off-Broadway musical brings back Desi Arnaz's glory and complexities
DAILY NEWS - September 17, 2008

By By Robert Dom’nguez
More than 50 years after his television heyday, Desi Arnaz is mostly remembered for his Ricky Ricardo persona - Lucille Ball's comical, conga-playing husband with the thick Cuban accent.

But Arnaz was more than just a straight man to his real-life wife's antics on the classic 1950s sitcom "I Love Lucy."

The Havana-born actor and musician was a pioneering TV producer, a respected bandleader and singer and one of the first Latino crossover TV stars.

Not to mention being a complex individual with a bit of a dark side.

All of these facets of Arnaz's life and career are touched on in "Babalu-Cy! - the art of Desi Arnaz," a stage show with music.

Opening Off-Broadway Tuesday at the Actors Temple Theatre, it stars Greg Purnhagen as Arnaz, who portrays the entertainer as he relates his life story while accompanied by a live, seven-piece Latin band.

"The show is a tribute to Desi that's as much a focus on his life and his music as it is his relationship to Lucille Ball," says Purnhagen, 48, a native of Massapequa Park, L.I.

Though it's essentially a one-man performance, Purnhagen is occasionally joined onstage by "Lucy" - an actress (Emily Ann Smith) in a red wig.

"It's impossible to look at his life without having her around [as a character]," says Purnhagen.

Though the actor is made up to resemble Arnaz and reads his lines with the familiar thick accent - and sings several of his better-known songs, including "Babalu," and "Cuban Pete" - the performance isn't meant to be an impersonation.

"I'm not trying to emulate him like a [celebrity voice impersonator] would," says Purnhagen. "It's not a caricature. It's more of an embodiment."

Though his biological father was Cuban, Purnhagen was given up for adoption as an infant and raised in an "Italian-American, German-Irish household," he says.

"There was no Latin culture in my life, so Desi became an idea of what it meant to be Cuban. I've always felt a connection to him - I was musical as a kid, I had a really hot temper, and all my friends who knew that I was adopted even called me Ricky Ricardo."

"Babalu-Cy!" has its share of laughs, but there are poignant moments, too, especially when the show touches on the Desi-Lucy bitter divorce.

Purnhagen says the couple's daughter, Lucie Arnaz, knows of the show and has given it her blessing and support.

What's more important to him is that audiences will come away with a different appreciation for Arnaz, who co-owned a TV production studio (Desilu) with Ball and is credited with innovating concepts such as shooting a TV show with a three-camera setup and using film stock instead of tape.

"Most people brush him aside," says Purnhagen. "But they'll be surprised to learn about a lot of his achievements."

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