I was a bit perplexed when I heard that Encores would be presenting Bells Are Ringing as part of its 2010-2011 lineup. Encores is supposedly devoted to presenting underrepresented musicals, shows that some people may have forgotten about. The other two shows in the current season certainly fit that bill: Where's Charley and Lost in the Stars.
Well, it turns out there's a reason that production didn't last: the show isn't very good. Oh, sure, there's a handful of marvelous songs, but they're surrounded by the creakiest book this side of Oklahoma. The state and the musical. The original production of Bells Are Ringing ran 924 performances, but that was mostly on the strength of original star, the marvelous Judy Holliday.
With all due respect to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, their material simply hasn't aged very well. In fact, the stop-and-sing, scene/song/dance structure of Bells Are Ringing was antiquated even in 1956. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, the talented sibling in the Marshall family, does what she can to bring the material to life, but she's irreparably hampered here by manufactured drama (e.g. The local police inspector really has nothing better to do than keep an eye on the supposed nefarious activities at Susaswerphone?) and forced coincidence (e.g. three male characters just happen to all show up at The Pyramid Club, bringing about the show's forced denouement?).
Granted, Bells Are Ringing features some of Jule Styne's most glorious melodies, including that of the enchanting "Long Before I Knew You." Plus, this song has one of the most charming excuses for a second verse I've ever heard. The female lead, Ella Peterson, is taking down dictation from Jeffrey Moss, each the object of the other's affection. Jeff starts with:
Long before I knew you,
Long before I met you,
I was sure I'd find you,
Jeff finishes the verse, then turns to Ella and says, "You haven't taken down a word." Ella replies, "I didn't have to," and sings the whole thing back to him. It's a delightful moment, right up there with "It Only Takes a Moment" from Hello, Dolly, in which the court reporter plays a very similar function.
But Styne's music here also features some genuine clunkers, such as "Independent" and "Better Than a Dream." Also, there are a number of songs here that are almost completely superfluous, including "Hello, Hello There" and "Mu-Cha-Cha." Yes, the first is meant to demonstrate that Ella has a wonderful way with people, but doesn't the rest of the book amply demonstrate that point? And the second seems as though it was just a chance to give co-choreographer Bob Fosse something to do.
As for the cast, I used to think that Kelli O'Hara was one of our most versatile actresses, excelling at both the subtle drama of Light in the Piazza to the brassy comedy of The Pajama Game. But based on this performance I'm beginning to have my doubts. Her accent seemed recycled from South Pacific. She fared perfectly well when she was singing, particularly on "The Party's Over," but her attempts at comedy fell surprisingly flat.
This may be my adoration for Judy Holliday talking here, but O'Hara doesn't seem to have anywhere near the flare for physical comedy or humorous impersonation to pull off the part of Ella Peterson. Holliday really must have kicked comedic ass. I usually avoid answering those questions that people post on Twitter about the one performance you'd want to go back in time to see. Well, I'd go back and see Judy Holliday in anything, even Hot Spot. (Especially Hot Spot.) But I would particularly love to go back and see her take the flimsy material in Bells Are Ringing and make it work.
The male cast is strong, particularly Will Chase as Jeff Moss. Chase once again demonstrates his remarkable versatility as a performer. He has such a rich and resonant voice, and an acting style that runs the gamut from Rent to The Story of My Life, from High Fidelty to Bells Are Ringing. Now that's range for you. (Matthew Morrison, eat your heart out.) The marvelous David Pittu is always a spark on stage, but Sandor's big number, "It's a Simple Little System," is rather one-joke, and not a very funny one at that. Bobby Cannavale, who showed such a knack for comedy on "Will & Grace," probably seemed a natural choice for the part of Blake Barton, the Brando-wannabe, but on the whole he seemed under-rehearsed.
If seeing Bells Are Ringing elicited any positive response, it was in my desire to break out the original cast recording and throw in my DVD of "Born Yesterday." Judy Holliday is a classic. Bells Are Ringing, not so much.