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A CurtainUp Review
Bells are Ringing
By Elyse Sommer
While Judy Holliday, for whom the show was written, may have immortalized Ella on stage (1956) and screen (1960), Prince is a better than worthy standard-bearer. Looking more like Lucille (I Love Lucy) Ball than Judy Holliday, she is faithful to the humor and generous spirit of Ella and also has the requisite vocal strength and variety to do justice to Jules Styne's music and Comden and Green's witty lyrics.
Typical of many old-fashioned Broadway musicals, the plot is more silly than profound and its humor as broad as Prince's impish grin. And yet Comden and Greene's love affair with New York's mix of big city glamour and small-town warmth rings true and -- well, clear as a bell.
Tina Landau, best known for more high-brow and high-flown fare (she's a member of the distinguished Chicago Steppenwolf Theatre Company), has wisely approached this revival without a knife sharpened to give it a cutting edge. Her Bells is an unabashed valentine to old-fashioned, feel-good romanticism bursting with unfashionably hummable, danceable tunes. The sleeker, sparer and trimmer ensemble seem more a bow to the economics of the current theater than to edgy modernity. She has added an inspired directorial fillip by accompanying the overture with film clips that take the audience into the show's era -- its movie and television personalities, fashions, foibles.
The windup of this nifty opening is a commercial for Susanswerphone that takes us to the rundown office where Ella gives the subscribers to her Aunt Sue's (Beth Fowler, her talents rather under utilized) message service the kind of personalized service that could happen only in a fairy tale musical. Without much of a personal life of her own, Ella greets each caller with an individualized personality and gets so involved with their problems that she ends up leaving her switchboard to weave her magic wand of sympathy over their lives. The subscribers include a dentist who'd rather write songs than fill cavities, a wannabe actor and, closest to her heart, a blocked playwright named Jeff Moss (Marc Kudisch -- not quite as laid-back as Dean Martin the movie Moss, but darkly handsome with a resonating baritone and quite nimble-footed) who's more into playing than writing. It is her good-fairy intervention in his career crisis that turns Ella into Cinder-Ella.
Amongst those adding to the shticky complications and opportunities for introducing the Styne-Comden-Green songs and Jeff Calhoun's peppy choreography: Two Keystone cop type vice-squad officers (the always reliable Robert Ari and Jeffrey Bean) who chase Ella instead of the pseudo-Viennese bookie (David Garrison) who charms Aunt Sue into giving him a desk for his y phony classical record (as in racket) company . . . a divish speaking delivery man (Julio Agustin whose background remains mystery since his program bio is in divish, but whose performance is a riot, especially in the "Mu-Cha-Cha" ensemble number he leads).
Despite the enduringly enjoyable songs and Prince's thoroughly endearing Ella, this Bells is not an unmitigated success. The era establishing opening probably doesn't go far enough for anyone under sixty. Without a program glossary of cultural allusions the scene featuring "Drop That Name", while visually striking, is so dated that the once smart lyrics are likely to leave many viewers feeling even more like outsiders at the party than Ella. In the subway number "Hello, Hello, There", Ms. Landau doesn't take the humor to the hilt, while in the scenes with the music-absorbed dentist (Martin Moran) she allows the funny business to go too far over the top -- though, to be fair, his antics got some of the evening's biggest laughs.
Riccardo Henandez creates a remarkable number of set changes though the art deco sensibility is at times at odds with our expectations of an old-fashioned musicals. The drop-down-pop up wall of the answering service office seems to be the cause of occasional technical difficulties -- which on the night I was there brought a spontaneous moment of hilarity, thanks to Marc Kudisch's quick-witted ad-lib during his final romantic scene with Ella. The production values overall are of a high caliber. Don Sebesky's orchestrations are especially commendable and David Woolard's costumes could have stepped right out of any 1957 issue of Mademoiselle (though those pedal pushers Faith Prince wears at the switchboard have made a comeback and can be seen in many a New York store window).
Will contemporary theater goers make a connection between this personalized answering service romance and one spurred by e-mail, as Betty Comden suggested in a recent interview? Not quite. But no doubt some young composer-lyricist is working on an e-mail inspired new musical comedy -- hopefully with some of Comden and Green's wit and Julie Styne's hummability.