Bells are Ringing, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Music by Jule Styne. Directed by Ethan Heard. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"No one's keeping you from doing what you want. . .but yourself."
In 1956 top notch musicals were the thing: My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella, Li'l Abner, West Side Story, Happy Hunting, Candide, to name just a few, were competing for ticket buyers. Bells are Ringing starring Judy Holliday and Sidney Chaplin ranked with the best of them and won multiple awards, sold out for three years and spawned a London edition after only one year on Broadway. Four years later it became an MGM movie starring Holliday and Dean Martin. The lady, already an award-winning star on Broadway in Born Yesterday, made a great big splash surprising her public with her singing and dancing and she even managed to reprise a ghostly apparition of of her Born Yesterday character - Billie Dawn - in a musical sequence in this show.
Flash forward 59 years to 2015 and reintroduce this hit show to a new audience in Pittsfield, MA and bring on board a different sort of star, Kate Baldwin, along with her husband Graham Rowat. Decrease the number of players from forty-two (not counting two well-known standbys for the star: Phyllis Newman and Marge Redmond; and one for the co-star: Hal Linden) to twelve, remove the large-scale drop and wing production values and replace them with an opaque box set designed as a Mondrian painting and cut the orchestration to accommodate eleven people in the pit and what do you have? Luckily you have a contemporary edition of a hit show that is still a hit show! A bonafide hit!!
Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse - co-choreographing - had Peter Gennaro on stage to dance their special Cha-Cha and other numbers. That's old-time powerhouse. In this new edition we have Alex Puette, a young veteran of national tours, to dance the new versions by Parker Esse and the results are just as good. Bernie West was a bucktoothed dentist in the show and now a toothsome hunk named James Ludwig has reconceived the role of Dr. Kitchell and made his turn into something humorous and not comic, touching and not outrageous and he gets our sympathy, our laughter and our affection.
I keep coming back, in my mind, to the performance by Kate Baldwin. While no one will make me forget Judy Holliday, Baldwin has given me new images, a new voice in my ear and a different sort of heroine to consider. She is never pathetic, never impractical and never uncertain. One of the unique qualities Judy Holliday displayed was her fragile ego and her openness to failure at every turn. Her Ella was a woman with a mission without a spear to carry in the third act. Baldwin has given Ella a different personality. Without a single change in lines or song lyrics her Ella is a woman with a mission who cannot accept the idea of failure in any way. When things turn against her, as things always do in these romances, she doesn't give up. Instead she resolves to take a step back and start all over again. It is her idealism and her strength that make her Ella so deliciously different and allow her to play the role and not the role-model as so many other revivals of shows have compelled their leads to do.
Graham Rowat is charming and makes a plain man into a hero by not going overboard as a disappointed drunk or a man drunk with love. Like Baldwin he pleases in songs and scenes and he never brings to mind any other actor I've seen in the role. Jeffery Moss, playwright, is born anew in Rowat's performance and that is a true delight. These two, the leads, have the luxury in this company of not playing more than one role (although it could be argued that Ella's disguises give her many more than one role, but you can decide that for yourself). The rest of the cast double up to cover all the rest of the parts played by the large original company. They all do it very well, including Cheryl Stern who plays Sue (of Susanswerphone) and a whole host of other characters including a nun wearing wildly colored knee socks. Her Sue is also not a rehash of the marvelous Jean Stapleton who originated the role but more of a composite of character actresses from the period. As her lover/abuser Sandor Prantz the company offers us Joseph Dellger who handles the task admirably.
The extremely youthful director, Ethan Heard, is remarkably true to the show's age, giving a very lively example of the mid-1950s without exhausting the imaginations audience members who may not remember those times. He introduces the concept of a rotary table phone through light and sound and there is never again a reason to even conceive of today's technology while the show is on. He has managed with ease the possible confusion for young audiences of a time when answering services were so crucial. His physical work with this company is as close to perfect as anyone could come and even the silliest traditional moments in the show are played for a quirky realism that seems just right for the people in their time.
David Murin's costumes are so reminiscent of those days of feigned innocence that even half-way back in the orchestra I could hear the crinolines and smell the freshly ironed fabrics. Dave Bova has done a miraculous job with hair and wigs and Reid Thompson's functional set is a joy to watch, particularly in the Mondrian-flecked entr'acte after the intermission.
To say that Bells are Ringing is an excellent revival is not enough. The Faith Prince revival in New York was anything but a hit and this new, local production is nothing but a hit. So, what we have here is a conjoining of superb talents to create a new show that could probably outlast its origins, if only it wasn't a summer show in a favorite small city. This one is worth a trip to the Berkshires, worth the three-night minimum stay our hotels require, worth your attention. It doesn't get much better than this.
Kate Baldwin as Ella Peterson; photo: Michelle McGrady
Joseph Dellger and Cheryl Stern; photo:Michelle McGrady
Kate Baldwin; photo: Michelle McGrady
Bells are Ringing plays through July 26 at the Colonial Theatre at 111 South Street in Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.