Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999
I was so excited to see "Bells Are Ringing" on Oldcastle's 1999 schedule. This happy 1956 musical with music by Jule Styne and book and lyrcis by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is not done nearly enough. I looked forward to Friday evening with pleasant anticipation.
Half an hour after the curtain went up I was sitting in the theatre wondering why. The ensemble (I dare not call them an orchestra) conducted byTim Howard was pretty dismal. The meager sets were furnished with junk purchased at Community Warehouse in Hoosick Falls (hint: not everything old is antique). Some amazingly bad wigs were being worn by chorus members, and the leading man, the handsome Bruce Alan Johnson, was so badly dressed that it made it hard to see what all the fuss was about.
Then, suddenly, the show became fabulous and remained that way for the next two hours. None of the problems mentioned above changed (well, they did get a tuxedo on Johnson, which was a big improvement) but that spark that makes theatrical magic appeared and overcame them all. It does not take beautiful sets and costumes to make a great show. It takes great people. With the expository portion of the plot out of the way the actors were suddenly freed to strut their stuff, and they had plenty of it to strut.
"Bells Are Ringing" is set in New York City in the period in which it was written - the late 1950's. Director Susan Streater is a little unclear as to exactly what that era looked and sounded like - she has dressed her woman more 1940's than 1950's and added '40's be-bop harmonizing from the chorus during the scene changes. But that is really beside the point. As long as we can accept the time period of the show as a time when having a phone answering service was the height of high tech, all is well.
Ella Peterson (Evy O'Rourke) has left her job on the switchboard of the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company to work for her cousin Sue (Lindsay Dyett) at her business, Susanswerphone. Ella has a habit of getting overly involved with the personal lives of the services clients, which arouses the suspicions of the police and causes no end of trouble for Ella and her clients. On this meddling the entire plot revolves: Ella falls for Jeffrey Moss (Johnson), a playwright on the skids, and makes a personal intervention which results in love and chaos.
Ella is a star making role. It worked its magic on Judy Holliday in 1956 and it does the same for O'Rourke, who received a standing ovation on opening night. As long as the actress/singer meets Ella halfway, the battle is won and the show is saved. O'Rourke makes it a a good three-quarters of the way to the heart of Ella, and does without resorting to the dizzy blonde antics that were Judy Holliday's trademark. O'Rourke, a statuesque brunette who is pretty in a very real way, makes her Ella a girl with a heart as big as all Manhattan. It was when she launched into the first of her three show-stoppers "Is It a Crime?" that this production suddenly leapt to life. She also sang the heck out of "The Party's Over" one of my all-time favorite songs, but ran out of steam for her big finale "I'm Going Back".
Johnson is handsome is the classic American leading man style, and he sings and dances well. It is always a relief to see a show that isn't miked. Johnson and O'Rourke's voices actually come out of their own mouths, rather than from speakers suspended from the proscenium. Johnson does well with his big song and dance number "I Met a Girl" and partners well with O'Rourke for "Just In Time" one of the big hits from the show.
Richard Howe has a great comic turn as Sandor, Sue's paramour who is secretly running a bookie service from Susanswer Phone. Both of his number's "Its a Simple Little System" and "Salzburg" (which is NOT by the sea, just so you get the joke) are a delight.
Aside from Johnson and O'Rourke the rest of the cast of 17 takes on many roles and disguises to flesh out all of New York City. Anthony Palencsar, Nathan Stith and Jay Kiman are standouts, each bringing unique talents to the ensemble in scene stealing comic moments. If only the poor girls weren't saddled with all those lousy wigs...
When this show first opened on Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson described it as having "the most antiquated plot of the season" in what was basically a favorable review. Yes, this is an old-fashioned musical, and yes, you will see prettier sets and costumes in other shows, but the talent and energy on the stage at Oldcastle are remarkable and make for a wonderful evening. You will leave the theatre humming the songs. You will feel uplifted and entertained. And that is what a good old fashioned American musical comedy is supposed to make you feel.
"Bells Are Ringing" runs through July 24 at the Oldcastle Theatre Company housed in the Bennington Center for the Arts at the junction of Route 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs two hours and three-quarters with one intermission, and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999