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Bells Are Ringing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Is it a tragedy when a star vehicle skids into a ditch following the passing of its original headliner? Maybe not, but few theatrical occurrences are more unsettling. That's why the Encores! production of Bells Are Ringing, which is playing through Sunday at City Center as part of the Encores! series, is such a disappointment: It's flawless in every way except the one that counts most—its leading lady.

That would be Kelli O'Hara, the eternal and eternally captivating ingénue who's lately graduated to more grown-up roles. As Clara in The Light in the Piazza, Babe in The Pajama Game, and especially as Nellie Forbush in the recent revival of South Pacific, O'Hara has demonstrated a mature and thoughtful manner that seems to mine additional emotional complexities from the at-odds women she plays. She convinces you, time and time again, that her characters are at war with themselves, and they can only escape the vicious cycle of self-brutality by thinking and reasoning their ways out of their own heads. Unfortunately, that measured, actorly approach is hardly right here.

The book and the lyrics (by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) and the music (Jule Styne) were concocted specifically for one of the go-from-the-gut greats, Judy Holliday. Each new scene is really more like a skit, demanding not so much consistent development as a commitment to unpredictable comedy. This is a musical, after all, that requires its central personality to belt and Borscht Belt her way through nine songs, most of them heavy on the hoke; do impressions of, among others, an ancient American, a decadent French woman, and Marlon Brando; and somehow make you adore and root for her on top of it all. Holliday, who nabbed the Tony away from Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and recreated her performance on film, obviously could fuse the shtick and the sentimentality. Faith Prince, who starred in the ill-fated (and ill-conceived) 2001 Broadway revival, could not.

Nor can O'Hara—her gifts lie elsewhere. She's a thrilling, opera-weight soprano, not a guttural trumpeter, and more adept at waving away lighthearted throwaway bits than carrying an entire gag factory on her shoulders for two and a half hours. As Ella Peterson, the operator at the Susanswerphone answering service who can't stop meddling in her clients' lives, she's inescapably effortful, as if she doesn't accept that this woman would attract the notice of the police, get mixed up with the mob, and change three men's lives—including one she falls for in a big, old-fashioned, romantic way. O'Hara observes the plot's endless complications as if from behind the two-way mirror in a police interrogation room, unable to locate or emulate the pulse that's driving everyone else to sing, dance, and laugh.

Because Ella powers nearly every scene, this rapidly becomes a major detriment to the evening—and seems more severe still because of how expertly everything else has been assembled. The rest of the show and company have been directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall to a gleaming musical-comedy polish, with far more innate, focused energy (if not always originality) than is found in many Broadway shows today. As usual, the Encores! orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman, is beyond reproach, unlocking every exciting nuance in Robert Russell Bennett's brassy orchestrations of Styne's masterful swinging-Manhattan music. The suggested sets (John Lee Beatty), splashy costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), and lights (Peter Kaczorowski) maintain the aromatic, fairy-tale feel established by the blithe and witty lyrics and stuffed-to-bursting book (which has been carefully reduced by David Ives).

Will Chase is ideal as Jeff Moss, the suddenly solo playwright Ella ushers to success, alternately as the 60-year-old Mom (on the phone) and as the prescient Melisande Scott (in person), performing his self-examinations "Independence" and "I Met a Girl" with grand ebullience, and his duets with Hara with a rich romantic ardor. David Pittu, as the bookie who secretly contracts Susanswerphone as a front for his horserace-betting ring and romances to distraction its owner, Sue Summers (a dignified Judy Kaye), is all jittery angles coated with a thick helping of shiny slyness that make him a riot even when standing still (which he rarely does). Dylan Baker and Danny Rutigliano, as the vice squad cops investigating Ella; Bobby Cannavale, as the actor she promotes to a role in Jeff's upcoming tour de force; and Brad Oscar, playing the dentist with songwriting dreams Ella also encourages simply could not be funnier. Even Jeffrey Schecter scores heavily as a dancing delivery man, even if his featured spot (the ballroom-lesson "Mu-Cha-Cha") wears out its welcome well before it concludes.

But without a magnificent Ella, Bells Are Ringing is mighty toneless. O'Hara sounds lovely in the softer songs ("Better Than a Dream," "Long Before I Knew You," "The Party's Over"), but you never believe she's connecting with the heart of a woman who's emerging into the world after a lifetime hiding behind telephones and made-up voices. And when Ella must go for broke, in "Is It a Crime?" (fending off Baker's inspector), "Hello, Hello There!" (changing the lives of a dozen random straphangers), or "Drop That Name" (struggling to fit in with society folk), O'Hara always looks like what she's doing is beneath her. But it's actually supposed to be on Ella's level—that's a big part of what makes her special, to Jeff as well as us.

The defining moment of both O'Hara's portrayal and the production comes during "I'm Goin' Back," which ranks up there with "Rose's Turn" as the quintessential 11-o'clock number. In essence recapping and repudiating all she's done wrong, Ella vows to make things right again—for herself, if no one else. Yet rather than letting the performer loose on the audience that should yearn to embrace her at her most nakedly honest and forlorn (if determined), Marshall insists on flashing the lights around the proscenium to force a response the game but underequipped O'Hara hasn't earned. It's difficult to imagine original director-choreographer Jerome Robbins would have considered that necessary for Holliday. But because O'Hara does need it, she's not at all what Bells Are Ringing needs, even if the rest of its requirements are so fully and smartly met.

Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert
Bells Are Ringing
City Center Mainstage, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: City Center

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