The black and white film of scenes and news clips from the 50s shown during the overture to Bells Are Ringing, which opened last night at the Plymouth Theatre, encapsulates all the problems with this revival. As someone who lived through that era, for me the film brought on a nostalgic glow for forgotten faces and a perhaps more idyllic time. Unfortunately, the young lady sitting next to me, because of her tender years, was at a total loss to identify anything or anyone in it. Finally, after being shushed repeatedly for asking her companion what it was all suppose to mean, she sank into a despondent gloom which Betty Comden and Adolph Green's dated book and lyrics, which require a familiarity with or at least a working knowledge of the social mores, conventions, and popular culture of 1956 or thereabouts, did nothing to assuage.
Frankly, she confided after the show was over, she was not amused, even appalled at the whole thing. That is, except for two songs. In the second act, when Marc Kudisch (as the playwright Jeff Moss) and Faith Prince (Ella Peterson, telephone operator at Susanswerphone) launched into Julie Styne's "Just in Time" and a bit later when Prince eased into "The Party's Over," she was swept away into musical comedy heaven. The whole dreary mess, she said, was worth those two moments.
I find myself in total agreement. Comden and Green's book has not stood the test of time well. The contrived plot is too creaky and obvious, with payoffs which don't seem to matter greatly to a current sensibility. Their lyrics are, at best, serviceable. Only with some of Styne's music does this show transcend time and speak directly to us now. This revival of Bells Are Ringing truly and accurately reflects the state of popular musical theatre (back when it was called musical comedy) over 40 years ago, entertaining as a minor historical curiosity, but not much more.
The main reason to see this show is for the charming, low key, and reliable performance of Faith Prince, who, for a few moments here and there, triumphs over Jeff Calhoun's run of the mill choreography and Tina Landau's less than engaging direction to give us a glimpse of what could have been.
Marc Kudisch is appropriately wooden in a wooden role. David Garrison (Sandor, smarmy con man) and Martin Moran (Dr. Kitchell, wannabe songwriter) are wonderfully over the top, but appear to be performing in some other show entirely. Beth Fowler (the Sue of Susanswerphone) is every 50s cliche rolled into one.
Don Sebesky's orchestrations are deserving of a Tony nomination. The scenery, by Riccardo Hernandez, is cold and sterile, as is the lighting designed by Donald Holder. David C. Woolard's costumes are rather fetching, but occasionally suffer from a too accurate recreation of the styles of the period, which were not always flattering to the women wearing them.
Bells Are Ringing Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Music by Jule Styne. Directed by Tina Landau. Choreography by Jeff Calhoun. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky. Starring Faith Prince and Marc Kudisch. Featuring David Garrison, Beth Fowler, Martin Moran, Robert Ari, Jeffrey Bean.
Theatre: Plymouth Theatre, 236 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Audience: Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Ticket prices: Orchestra and Mezzanine Rows A through H $85. Mezzanine Rows J through K $65. Wednesday Matinee Orchestra and Mezzanine Rows A through H $75. Mezzanine Rows J through K $55.
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Tickets by phone: Tele-charge, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - Inside the NY metro area (212) 239-2969 Outside the NY metro area (888) 268-2020
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6 PM
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Tickets by snail mail: Bells Are Ringing, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998