Kelli O'Hara in Bells Are Ringing
(© Joan Marcus)
Kelli O'Hara in Bells Are Ringing
(© Joan Marcus)
A world without call-waiting, voicemail, and texting is almost as unimaginable as a New York in which bookies hide behind phony classical record labels and one charismatic, good-natured woman cannot only turn a subway car into a living poster for brotherly love, but also reverse the fortunes of three very different -- yet all similarly unhappy -- men around. And yet, both of these improbable realities take to the stage in Bells Are Ringing, being presented by City Center Encores! and starring the surprisingly sizzling duo of Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase.

Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall's staging doesn't always convince theatergoers of the plausibility of either of these incomprehensible conceits at the center of the show's giddy book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, but there's a good enough humor in the production -- along with some galvanizingly buoyant melodies by Jule Styne -- to ensure that any skepticism that audiences might have about all of this never lasts for long. Moreover, one senses that with some time, this production might coalesce gracefully into an exceedingly satisfying revival.

At the center of this musical confection is Ella Peterson (O'Hara), an operator at a personalized answering service who takes an inordinate interest in the lives of the business' clients. She'll vocally transform herself into Santa Claus, for instance, to help out a mother with a difficult child, and for an opera diva, she knows exactly what cure to recommend for a bad cold. For Jeffrey Moss (Will Chase), a playwright who's drowning his sorrows nightly (and daily) in booze, Ella's reactions are a bit complex. She may pretend to be a doddering old lady -- his "mom" -- when he calls in for messages, but really she's fallen in love with him sight unseen.

When this romance blossoms, the production flares marvelously to life. O'Hara and Chase both sound terrific singing some of the show's most famed numbers: they share "Long Before I Knew You" and she gets to deliver "The Party's Over" singly. Unfortunately, Ella's chameleon-like nature, which almost indicates a kind of comedic ADHD, proves to be something of a stretch for O'Hara, who does do some amusing impressions, but Ella's zaniness comes across as unconvincingly forced. More consistently successful is Chase's turn as Moss. He croons his songs with period flair and gives an antic, naughty little boy quality that's exceedingly winning.

Even as the couple pursues their romance, Ella is being tailed by the ambitious, but hawkishly dim, Inspector Barnes (played with a grand dryness by Dylan Baker), who thinks Ella and her cousin Sue (a comically and vocally spot-on turn from Judy Kaye), are running an escort service. He's not far off the mark in his idiocy.

Something shady is going on: Sue's actually agreed to take record orders for J. Sandor Prantz (whom David Pittu makes a died-in-the-wool "New Yawker" with a delicious faux Teutonic accent), the man she loves. He's set up a bank of phones in the women's offices for his orders, which in point of fact are coded bets on horse races.

Ultimately, both couple's worlds -- along with those of Blake Barton, an actor with a desire to be the next Brando (a hilarious turn from Bobby Cannavale) and Dr. Kitchell, a dentist who wants to write pop songs (a surprisingly understated Brad Oscar) -- collide to happy effect, thanks to Ella's quick wit, resourcefulness and zest for life.

If Marshall's work as a director doesn't always mirror Ella's exuberance, her work as a choreographer does, and in fact, some of the funniest moments come in her dances. Similarly, John Lee Beatty's scenic design -- which backs the stage with an abstracted comic strip like telephone cord -- and Peter Kaczorowski's colorful lighting design have a flair that inspires smiles.