Bells Are Ringing

NY City Center Encores - November 2010

Review by John Kenrick

With Broadway increasingly up to its ringing ears in over-amplified rock musicals, it is particularly sweet to have the Encores concert production of Bells Are Ringing to remind us that musical comedy -- the kind packed with memorable melody and genuine belly laughs -- was what made several generations worth of history in the American theatre.  It also reminds us how tragic it is that this kind of lilting entertainment is on the decline. One is more than tempted to say that this delightful revival came along -- in the words of one of its hit songs -- "Just in Time."

Although those below a certain age may find this hard to believe, there was a thriving theatrical world before deafening rock and jukebox musicals began devouring Broadway. In that world, for most of the 20th Century, a bounty of wonderful hit songs came from Broadway musicals. Now jerry-built musicals rely on recycled hits -- and the results, no matter now many Tonys they win, feel like tourist attractions -- which, to be frank, is what they really are. I daresay few tourists interrupted their pre-Thanksgiving weekend to catch this all too brief run of Bells Are Ringing, but a few thousand locals who still give a damn about wit and melody were thankful indeed to spend a few hours celebrating some sweet and zany old school musical magic.

The plot is simple; so simple that it was (believe it or not) inspired by an ad on the back of a 1950s phone book depicting an operator entangled in the cables of a pre-digital switchboard. In those days when answering machines and cell phones were still the stuff of fantasy, busy New Yorkers relied on answering services to take messages and keep anxious callers mollified. Bells centers on Ella Peterson, a warm-hearted operator at such a service, who constantly goes beyond the call of duty to help her clients -- making a connection here, suggesting a home remedy there, and in the process falling in love with the voice of a playboy playwright. When the unseen hunk's career hangs in the balance, Ella steps in, setting off a chain of wildly diverse events & connections that lead several of her clients to professional fulfillment, and Ella and her playwright to true romance.

With catchy melodies by Jule Styne and superbly crafted words (book as well as lyrics lyrics) by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Bells Are Ringing has remained a staple in the musical theatre repertory ever since its premiere in 1956 -- helped in no small part by the now legendary performance of original leading lady Judy Holliday, who won a Tony and later starred in the MGM screen version. A long-overdue revival a few years back boasted a wonderful performance by Faith Prince, but died a quick death due to clueless direction and financial mismanagement.

This time around, Encores has everything in beautiful, period-friendly comic focus. As the loving and loveable Ella, Broadway favorite Kelli O'Hara offers her finest comic performance to date. After her triumph in South Pacific, it is no secret that she's one of the best singing actresses around, but who knew she was so deft at landing laughs? And in the delightful "Mu-Cha-Cha," she even displayed some impressive dancing moves.  I must admit to being a bit surprised when she was announced for this role, but this gifted lady rose to the challenge and left me (and most everyone else on the night I attended) cheering with delight. This delicious performance makes O'Hara a first-string choice for far many more roles in the future -- and it is fair to suggest that we are apt to see her making a Tony acceptance speech sooner rather than later.

Another surprise comes from Will Chase as the wayward playwright.  He certainly made a fine impression a few years ago breathing life into in the mediocre High Fidelity, but I did not know he had such a rich, powerhouse baritone -- and he also is a master at handling comic material. When he joined up with O'Hara for the bouncy "Just in Time," the result was so buoyantly joyous that everyone in the massive City Center audience was taken along for the flight. And in the underrated ballad "Long Before I Knew You," Chase was every inch the irresistible leading man. If only there were more scores today that would give this man full range for his talents!

As usual, Encores brought together a superb supporting cast. Standouts include the always divine Judy Kaye who scores a triumph as Ella's daffy cousin Sue, igniting all-out hilarity when she joins forces with David Pittu (riotously funny as the bookie Sandor) for the mock-schmaltz waltz "Salzburg." Jeffrey Schecter dances superbly as Carl, and as Dr. Kitchell (the dentist who composes cheesy pop songs on his air hose) comic genius Brad Oscar chews the almost non-existent but amazingly effective scenery (by Encores stalwart John Lee Beatty) with giddy relish.

Director Kathleen Marshall staged every scene with clarity and style, and her fresh, vibrant choreography made "Mu-Cha-Cha" the showstopper it ought to be but all too often is not. Rob Berman conducted with his usual flawless confidence. And a note to Mr. Berman:  Dear sir, I have seen many productions of Bells Are Ringing, but never have I heard it better played or sung. And how wonderful the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations sound when lovingly played by the peerless Encores Orchestra! Once again, I was happy to be one of the hundreds of Encores fans who make a point of sticking around to relish the exit music and give these wonderful musicians a final cheer.

Ben Brantley, that sad excuse for a man who tragically serves as theatre critic for the New York Times, insists that Bells Are Ringing makes his "allergies flare up" -- in which case, he is welcome to sneeze until his tasteless brain is spewed out onto some sidewalk, where it would be able to do no further harm.  This homunculus is more to blame than most for the rise of noise and ignorance in the contemporary musical theatre -- so it is no wonder that he recoils when faced with a show packed with intelligent humor and what he himself admits is an "eminently hummable score rendered with sparkling precision." Brantley is good at turning a clever phrase, especially when in attack mode, but he is painfully ignorant of what makes for good musical theater -- and his removal to a quiet teaching position (in, for example, Outer Siberia) would be a distinct moment of good luck for the American musical.  Heck, it might even set some bells ringing in delight.

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