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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Bells Are Ringing
The bells you hear ringing at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield aren't from a bad-mannered theater goer's cell phones, but an old-fashioned, dial telephone. The show's blocked playwright, Jeffrey Moss doesn't connect with leading lady Ella Peterson at an internet social media site but through a popular 1950s business, the telephone answering service.
While email and cell phones inevitably challenge directors to keep a show that once delighted from coming off too dated to still ring a responsive bell with audiences who've become accustomed to shows with more contemporary characters and music and less contrived themes — for example, Fun Home with its provocative book and Hamilton with its rap lyrics.
But Comden and Green and are one of the musical theater's iconic book and lyric writing teams, as are the composers with whom they collaborated. To prove that they can attract young audiences as well as old-timers as well as younger audiences, two of their shows are currently enjoying critically lauded Broadway productions: On the Town (which started life at Barrington Stage) and On the Twentieth Century well-received.
But even these stellar collaborators require the right casting and staging to still work their charms. This is especially true for Bells. . . which was written for and owed much of its success to Judy Holliday in the role of Ella Peterson. In the 2001 revival, director Tina Landau was unable to guide Fay Prince to take the role's humor to the hilt nor the production overall to overcome its longueurs. The music by Jules Styne (the composer best known for Gypsy) and the witty book and lyrics failed to give it the "legs" for a substantial run.
Ethan Heard, the current production's director, is young and completely new to the Comden and Green oeuvre. But he's come as close as you can get to giving this more than sixty-year-old tuner a vivid new life. Fortunately, he has the lovely Kate Baldwin on board as Ella. Baldwin is smart and talented enough to bring her own take on the switchboard operator in her aunt Sue's answering service who, without much of a life of her own, gets involved in some of the subscribers lives. Naturally, some of this ends up face-to-face rather than just via her phone persona and Ella's good-fairy intervention in Jeffrey's career crisis turns her into Cinder-Ella. Baldwin also brings great vocal strength and individuality to the songs.
Graham Rowat Baldwin's handsome and strong of voice husband, charms as the headed for the gutter playwright who falls in love with Ella, unaware that she's really the woman on the phone he thinks of as a motherly older woman. Their on stage chemistry does indeed ring true and clear as a bell, enough so to make you overlook the unlikely coincidences and contrivances. And unlikely and silly as that plot is, it still evokes the authenticity of Comden and Greene's love affair with New York's mixture of of big city glamour, loneliness and small-town warmth.
Just ten actors besides Baldwin and Rowat ably portray the many other characters who propel the shticky plot include Ella's aunt (the excellent Sheryl Stern), the Susananswerphone's proprietor smitten with a crooked gambler(an aptly devious Joseph Dellger), a dentist who's rather be in show business (a deliciously clownish James Ludwig). Don't ask, there are more characters to present the goofy complications.
The modestly sized, multi-role playing cast and Reid Thompson's limited use of scenic props may sound like a case of budget constraints. But director Heard and his team have managed to never have the stage look under populated and it's fun to see the actor's quick changes (abetted by costumer David Murin period perfect costumes and hair and make designer Dave Bova's work). Thompson's deceptively simple set is actually very sophisticated and effective. The Mondrian-ish curtain opens to a similar but full of surprises background. Besides doors and windows that pop open there are several especially nifty uses of some of those squares to show the answering service customers in silhouette. The clever background is brilliantly lit Oliver Wason's shifting lights enhance that clever backdrop.
If Curtainup's reviews included letter grade rankingss would all the above point to an A+ rating? Not quite. You see, despite Baldwin's delightful Ella, the versatile cast, and excellent production values, this Bells Are Ringing gets off to a a problematic start. Except for the amusing subway scene where Ella has the usually grumpy crowd singing "Hello Hello There" and her final "Long Before I Knew You Duet" with Jeff, the first act doesn't showcase the songwriters' at their best and the plot somehow fails to catch fire or escape feeling dated. It's not until the second act that it moves into hit territory and choreographer Parker Esse is at his best
The lively "Mu-cha-cha" is followed by one of the show's standards "Just In Time." And while the references in "Drop That Name" at the party where Jeff introduces Ella to his snobbish acquaintances are dated, but the scene has a wonderful Edward Gorey look, with everyone in black and white except Ella, the lady in red. That number leads into the super break out, "The Party's Over" beautifully sung by Baldwin, as is her final solo, "I'm Goin'Back."
While only the shorter, swifter second act comes close to a top grade, Joel Fram's 11-member pit orchestra is A+ throughout. And so, even though not on a par with On the Town, by the time the cast takes it's bow you'll understand why Comden and Green long partnership embodied the title of the first act's "It's a Perfect Relationship."