Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Music by Jule Styne
Entire original production directed by Jerome Robbins
Dance and musical numbers of original production staged by Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse
Directed by Ethan Heard
Choreography by Parker Esse
Musical direction by Joel Fram
Featuring Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat
Before there was texting, emails, voicemails, and answering machines, there were telephone answering services. An extension of a telephone number was connected to a switchboard in an office where it was answered by an operator. Of course, whoever took the messages learned maybe a little too much about the customers lives, loves and foibles.
It’s a funny concept for a show and Comden and Green made the most of it in their classic musical theatre comedy Bells Are Ringing, now in revival at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre. The show premiered in 1956 and takes place in the same decade, a time of Francoise Sagan’s novel Bonjour Tristesse, Mondrian’s rectangular abstractions, crinolines and pink telephones with dials. If only this befuddled production did justice to it!
The plot of “Bells are Ringing” revolves around Ella Peterson, an operator at Susanswerphone. She’s a little short on smarts and long on taking care of people. She puts on a Santa Claus voice for a child of one of the answering service’s customers and pretends to be an elderly grandmother for another. She helps a dentist with songwriting aspirations achieve his dream. She’s a loveable, naïve busybody who sight unseen falls in love with a customer who is a blocked playwright. There are other characters and subplots and some sensational songs like “The Party’s Over,” “Long Before I Knew You,” And “I’m Going Back (to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company).”
The first number in the form of a radio ad for Susanswerphone starts us off on a high note, but the show quickly goes downhill. The problem is Kate Baldwin as Ella. She is a beautiful, likable performer with an exquisite voice—but she does not come across as naïve or innately funny and no amount trying could convince us that she is. Baldwin is not bad in this role. She is just wrong.
The role of Ella was made famous by Judy Holiday first on the stage and then in a movie. Several years ago the show was revived starring Faith Prince, who played Adelaide in a revival of Guys and Dolls, another naïve character. The following lyrics, especially the last line, are funny if sung sincerely. Aim for a laugh, and they don’t work.
I’m going back where I can be me,
To the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company.
They’ve got a great big switchboard there where it’s just “hello,” “goodbye.”
It may be dull, but there I can be just me, myself, and I.
A little modeling on the side.
Kate Baldwin wonderfully and humorously played Countess Charlotte Malcolm in A Little Night Music on the same stage last summer. A high-society countess being funny is a far cry from a lower-than-high-society Ella Peterson.
Ms. Baldwin’s husband, Graham Rowat, plays Jeffrey Moss, the blocked playwright with whom Ella falls in love. Moss is supposed to be a tall handsome guy—not a stretch at all for Rowat. He has a gorgeous voice, and more important, he is believable. Also excellent and genuinely funny in this show is James Ludwig as the Dentist/Songwriter. He only has to walk onto the stage to get the audience laughing.
One wonders what was going on the mind of the choreographer, Parker Esse, to allow all but one of his dance numbers to take place on a stage full of furniture. It’s doubtful that either Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse, who staged the original dance and musical numbers would have put up with such a dangerous—and ridiculous—situation. Especially on a small stage. A medal for bravery should be awarded to the dancer who tried and almost succeeded in executing several fouettés between a desk and two rolling office chairs.
The backdrop for all the shenanigans is a large, Mondrian-like painting with rectangles that open, close and change color. It works well when Ella is talking to her customers on the phone and they appear in silhouette. But that scene was near the top of the show and after awhile, the backdrop becomes a player itself. It is intrusive. One wonders if the cost of this backdrop was the reason that the rest of the scenery is sparse and amateurish.
The mostly brass and woodwind orchestra under Joel Fram’s direction played well.
Ethan Heard directed.
It is hard to believe that the theatre company that gave us a magnificent A Little Night Music and Oklahoma! could miss by such a large distance. If you’ve never seen Bells Are Ringing, go. You’ll have fun. The show is fun—unless you’ve seen a previous production, especially the original. If you have, put on the album, close your eyes and try to remember.