Bells Are Ringing

Plymouth Theatre, NY - April 2001

Review by John Kenrick

There's not much excitement in the newly revived Bells Are Ringing, but thanks to Faith Prince and a talented cast, there's more than a little fun – something we don't see nearly enough of on Broadway anymore. Frankly, this has never been one of my favorite musicals. Neither the original cast album nor the film with Judy Holliday ever made much of an impression on me, and I the amateur productions I've seen rarely kept me in my seat past intermission. When I heard it was being revived, I wondered how the topical 1950's comedy would go over with 21st Century audiences.

So it was a happy surprise to find myself having a grand old time! Acclaimed off-Broadway director Tina Landau and her creative team have wisely decided to treat the material for what it is – a light and breezy musical comedy, with no with no goal other than to while away a few hours with some well-planned music and laughter. Although this is Landau's first musical (and her first Broadway project), she keeps things clearly focused and moving at a fresh pace. She opens with a proscenium sized TV screen that pours forth images of life in the 1950's – a clever way to take us back a half century in a matter of minutes.

The plot involves Ella Peterson, an answering service (remember those?) operator who plays good Samaritan to many of her clients, particularly playwright Jeff Moss. In a series of comic misunderstandings that only Betty Comden and Adolph Green could have pulled off so neatly, the two eventually fall in love and simultaneously manage to unwittingly destroy a mob betting ring.

Riccardo Hernandez's sets are a strange blend of basement shabby and high tech chic, very effectively lit by Donald Holder. David C. Woolard's costumes hit the right period notes, and while Jeff Calhoun's choreography will never raise goose bumps, at least for once it is not a major liability. Special kudos to Acme Sound Partners for such unobtrusive sound design – would that more shows were so tastefully amplified. One fact cannot be escaped – no production, no matter how stylish, could maker this dated material electrifying. As a history buff, I loved every reference, but I can't help wondering if anyone who doesn't know a lot about the 1950's will get the witty references to the celebrities and practices of that decade.

Faith Prince is in her element as Ella, her best work since her breakthrough performance in Guys and Dolls. It takes one hell of a singing comedienne to make this role work, and Prince was so bang-on that she had the place on their feet the night I attended. There are moments when this giddy redhead looks a lot like Lucille Ball, and her comic timing won belly laughs in all the right places. But she also sings with a solid belt calculated to warm the heart of any showtune lover. It will take one hell of a competing performance to deny her a Tony this June.

Mark Kudisch finally gets the kind of leading role he has long deserved. His creamy baritone voice and masculine good looks made him the perfect choice for Jeff Moss. Beth Fowler as Sue and David Garrison as Sandor are two longtime favorites of mine, but its these roles give them few opportunities to show what they can do. (Musical buffs will enjoy the irony of Garrison, who played the owner of Broadway's Titanic, masquerading here as the owner of "Titanic Records.") Talent alert – be on the lookout for Martin Moran, who darn near steals the show as Dr. Kitchell, the dentist who composes songs on an air hose. I've seen him in other shows, and admired his work, but he proves himself a comic powerhouse here. Julio Agustin also makes a strong impression as Carl, the humpy delivery boy who leads Ella and a streetful of New Yorkers in "Mu-Cha-Cha."

The Jule Styne-Comden and Green score is not one of the all time greats, but it includes the pop hits "The Party's Over" and "Just in Time," and provides a fair amount of fun along the way. And what fun it is to see a pro like Faith Prince work the shamelessly corny showstopper "I'm Going Back" for all its worth.

If you love classic musicals, this revival of Bells Are Ringing is certainly worth catching, a sweet reminder of a time when Broadway was a place where people went to cheer up – and with Miss Prince dishing out the humor, you're going to enjoy keeping the Faith!

Back to: Musicals101's Reviews