Unfortunately, the television conceit has another effect. It triggers thoughts of '50s sitcoms, all but declaring that the Bells are Ringing libretto is not much more than a ready-for-prime-time script on its way to be sweetened by a laugh track. During a period when Gale Storm, Joan Davis, and Lucille Ball were dreaming up goofy pranks to resolve negligible conflicts with family and friends, bookwriter-lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green must have figured that ticket buyers accustomed to such antics would love to see them transferred to the stage, enhanced by songs the team would run up with longtime collaborator Jule Styne.
Comden & Green also figured (correctly) that Judy Holliday, their former partner in a club act called The Revuers, was the best choice to put the vehicle's pedal to the metal. So they gerrymandered the sunny tale of Ella Peterson, an employee at an answering service who compulsively involves herself in the lives of people for whom she takes telephone messages. The most significant of these clients is a blocked playwright named Jeffrey Moss, on whom Ella has a school-girlish crush.
Determined that Jeff will meet a set of impending deadlines imposed on him, Ella finagles her way into his apartment and chats him into writing again; he eventually hunt-and-pecks a play that is talked about enthusiastically but actually sounds like a proto-Moose Murders. As Ella does her good deed, she also causes Jeff to fall in love with her and her winning ways--e.g., her ability to get subway sourpusses to talk to one another. At the same time she is helping Jeff, she lights fires under a dentist who wants to be a songwriter and a Brandoesque actor who needs a part in a play. Don't you know that the actor lands a role in Jeff's play, about a dentist who wants to be a songwriter?
While Ella cavorts in the fictional guise of one Melisande Scott, feeling guilty about the subterfuge, her employer (and cousin) Sue has fallen for Sandor, a bookie with a scheme for taking racetrack bets through Susanshwerphone as if they were orders for classical records. These activities have made a thick-witted NYPD detective and his sidekick suspicious enough to begin a surveillance of Sue and Ella, which leads to the required second-act complications. Going into any more of the plot ins-and-outs would be akin to running down the dramatic anfractuosities of a My Little Margie episode; but, needless to say, everything works out in the end.
In 1956, the raison d'etre of Bells Are Ringing was simply this: Get Holliday on stage to sing Comden-Green-Styne ditties, and surround her with the other bright elements that made musical comedies of that era glide by as unobtrusively successful entertainments. Well, the songs are still there, and they have stood time's often quixotic test. When Bells Are Ringing opened--in the same season as, wait for it, My Fair Lady--a couple of its songs instantly achieved standard status. "Long Before I Knew You" and "Just in Time" were sung everywhere, as was "The Party's Over," wherein Ella expresses regret for tricking Jeff and thereby outfoxing herself. The Bells tunesmiths also exploited Holiday's particular talents for mimicry and ham in "Is It a Crime?" and "I'm Going Back," a couple of rousing specialty numbers that draw on vaudeville conventions for their show-biz pizzazz. For added fun, they threw in the bookies' song "It's a Simple Little System" (with its hilarious build to the race track name "Hialeah") and a novelty number called "Mu-Cha-Cha" to take advantage of the Latin craze then luring people with two-left feet onto America's dance floors. And then there's the wonderfully brittle, cocktail-conversation list song "Drop That Name." Every one of these numbers still twinkles, even if the dance routines choreographer Jeff Calhoun provides for many of them aren't particularly imaginative.
But though the score (presented here in Don Sebesky's arrangements) still retains a crisp commercial resonance, what do you do when you don't have Holliday to revel in it? Obviously, you find someone with an equally off-the-meter adorability rating. Faith Prince, who's been doing a couple of the Bells Are Ringing songs in her act and has played the role before, was tapped as the ideal choice. (Broadway rumor-mongers have had it that Comden and Green needed to be convinced of her appropriateness.) Well, if she is the ideal choice, she isn't allowed to prove it in Tina Landau's odd production. There's no question that Prince has the ability to sock a comedy song past the back walls and into the streets--why else did she carry the Tony home for her Miss Adelaide in the last Guys and Dolls revival?
Prince certainly does a proficient job in Bells Are Ringing, but nothing she does in the course of her efforts looks, as it should, effortless. She's up there working away for every laugh and, as a result, she misses several. Some of her numbers lack what Holliday brought to them: a defiance meant to mask vulnerability. With her square face set in a try-and-stop-me expression, Prince seems hardened, as if her vulnerability masks defiance. This is not all her fault; she isn't helped by her makeup or her hair-do. Her deep-red lipstick may be true to period, but it does nothing to soften her look. Nor does Prince's short-cropped, Lucille Ball-henna-rincess hair-do make the grade, since it has the curious appearance of a wig awaiting a comb-out.
Unfortunately, Prince comes off here as one of those women of a certain age who have long since settled on how they want to apply their make-up, regardless of changes in style and fashion. This doesn't help her in the romantic scenes with Marc Kudisch. Quite the opposite: She looks older than he, though that shouldn't necessarily be a problem. Why not an older woman falling for a younger man, and vice versa? But in the Bells Are Ringing circumstances, Comden and Green have Jeff thinking of Ella at the other end of the phone wire as a woman called Mom, and Ella remarks to Sue that Jeff "needs a mother." All of this leads to the impression that Prince winds up playing an in-person mother figure rather than a girl friend.
Perhaps this is why Kudisch, a talented leading man with a jawline as long as the coast of Maine, doesn't come off as well as his talents should allow. He certainly makes good on his big ballads and moves around the stage fleetly. (At the performance I attended, he also demonstrated admirable ad-libbing skills when he made a crack about a recalcitrant piece of scenery and received the evening's biggest laugh.) Kudisch has been showing his wares effectively for sometime now, especially in the ill-constructed and ill-fated High Society; if his workin Bells doesn't represent the breakout performance he's got in him, that certainly doesn't mean he won't give such a performance eventually.
The rest of the company is acceptable without bringing any real effervescence to the affair. David Garrison as the bookie Sandor, Beth Fowler in a Vivian Vance coif as Sue, Robert Ari as the over-eager Inspector Barnes, Jeffrey Bean as his shutterbugging associate detective Francis, Darren Ritchie as a reformed Brando epigone, and Angela Robinson in the totally thankless role of the third Susanswerphone staffer keep the proceedings from flagging as best they can. Falling short of that mark is Martin Moran as dentist Kitchell, who composes on his air hose and comes up with (among others ditties) "The Midas Touch," one of those awful nightclub items Comden and Green love to poke fun at. (Remember how they slipped the risibly lugubrious "I'm Blue" into On the Town?) Moran's uncontrolled, hysterical turn marks him as the poor man's Bill Irwin; and if you don't happen to like Irwin, he's very poor, indeed.
The production's costumes are by David C. Woolard, who must have pored over every national magazine from the 1950s for inspiration. The shades-of-gray evening clothes worn by the women of the chorus for "Drop that Name," in which the names dropped include Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, and Valentino, are inspirations. Donald Holder does a fine job on the lighting, as do the Acme Sound Partners on the sound design. But Riccardo Hernandez's all-purpose set, based on the period's modern architecture, doesn't serve enough purposes sufficiently. Because a steel-girder-like infrastructure remains in place throughout, it sometimes seems as if the entire show is taking place in a terrarium. Though Comden and Green have always loved New York, New York, it's unlikely that they ever thought it should be presented as if preserved under glass. But perhaps this scenic device can be taken as an metaphor for the entire, disappointing enterprise.