To apply the current way of thinking, it would be impossible to make a 45 year-old musical work without succumbing to the temptation to change, update, and revise. The Pittsburgh CLO has found the secret that really works, at least with the the current production of Bells Are Ringing -- cast it well and produce it well. That sounds simple, but it isn't the road that is taken with many revivals.
Bells Are Ringing is a perfect representative of the typical '50s light romantic musical comedy. Ella Peterson is an employee of Susanswerphone, an answering service, but finds it hard to limit herself to just taking messages and making wake up calls. With good intentions, she entwines herself in her clients' lives, without them knowing it. She helps handsome playboy Jeff Moss break his writers block, encourages dentist/frustrated songwriter Dr. Kitchell to develop some catchy songs, and offers sartorial suggestions to Brando-like struggling actor, Blake Barton. Along with the obligatory sub-plot, which involves a record company that is really a horse betting racket, and two persistent police detectives, Ella's meddlings create a mix of small problems all of which are resolved neatly by the show's end. And Ella wins her man. All of this plays out with the aid of a charming score by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne.
The brightest sparkle in this delightful production is the cast. Victoria Clark is near perfect as Ella Peterson, immediately winning the audience over with her likeable manner. Ella is the only lead in the show, with practically the whole show revolving around her, but Clark masters the role with the comedic and vocal talents she holds in abundance. It was easy to just sit back and enjoy such a gifted performer. The supporting cast is rich with talent as well. Returning to Pittsburgh after performing in a similar role in another '50s musical last season (The Pajama Game) is Robert Cuccioli as Jeff Moss. If you've only seen Cuccioli in Jekyll & Hyde you may be surprised at how well he does romantic comedy. He's very comfortable in this part and is quite charming. Both he and Clark sing their parts well also and they have ample opportunities with such songs as "Better Than a Dream," "Long Before I Knew You" and "Just in Time."
Other returning CLO performers also bring spirit to this production. Ray DeMattis is very funny as Sandor, the head of the betting ring. Jeff Howell, as Dr. Kitchell, and his musical air hose nearly brought the house down in the wackiest role in the show. Daniel Krell is also very good as Blake Barton - quite a switch from his role as Giorgio in Passion earlier this year for Starlight Productions. Playing Inspector Barnes and his sidekick Francis, Paul Palmer (veteran of 42 CLO productions) and Mark Woodard are a perfect couple. In the smaller part of Carl, the delivery boy, Eric Sciotto really shines during the fun dance number "Mu-Cha-Cha." Sciotto is a good dancer and has great stage presence - after performing on Broadway and on tour in Annie Get Your Gun and in the Broadway cast of Aida, it's clear he has a great future.
An unexpected treat was how refreshing and impressive the choreography and staging are, especially in the numbers "On My Own" and "Drop That Name." Helping to bring this off is a very talented and versatile ensemble. This season's CLO ensemble is made up of performers of many different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. It is thrilling to see them all come together, dancing and moving perfectly through many intricate scenes. The sets, too, are very well done though a bit noisy when being changed.
Bells Are Ringing could be a tired chestnut of a show, but the current production at the Benedum Theatre is a '50s show that is still fun from beginning to end. It's one of the best CLO productions I have seen and the only disappointment is knowing that it only runs through this Sunday, July 15.
Bells Are Ringing
Book & Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green. Music by Jule Styne. Original Production Directed by Jerome Robbins. Dance & Musical Numbers of Original Production Staged by Jerome Robbins & Bob Fosse. Directed by Richard Sabellico. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Lighting Design by John McLain. Musical Direction by Tom Helm.
Starring Robert Cuccioli, Victoria Clark, Ray DeMattis, Karen Murphy, Eric Sciotto, Jeff Howell, Daniel Krell, Paul Palmer, Mark Woodard, Bob Reed, Kathy Lash-Fuller, Kathy Meyer, Justin Brill, Kenneth McMullen, Sarrah Strimel, Alexander Gemignani, Courtney Mazza, Zachary Halley, Brian Barry, Nikki Renee Daniels, Jeremy Davis, Sarah Jane Everman, Leslie Henstock, Tyler Maynard, Bobby Pestka, Tory Ross, Melissa Rouse, Christopher Saunders, Laura Solito, Matthew Carl Williams, Stephanie Youell.