PITTSFIELD – Those late great Broadway writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green have enjoyed a banner year this season. Their first musical collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, On The Town, is a smash revival on Broadway (after transferring from Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage). Their hit musical On The Twentieth Century is playing down the street from On The Town with Kristen Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher giving star turns. Their version of Peter Pan, which never took off during its live NBC broadcast, got a sparkling revival at The Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs.
Bells Are Ringing, their 1956 collaboration with Jule Styne, is onstage at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield thanks to The Berkshire Theatre Group. The trio built the musical around the talents of Broadway comedienne Judy Holliday, who had performed with Comden and Green, and based the character of Ella (here played to perfection by Kate Baldwin), according to Shubert Alley lore, on a Mary Printz, who worked for Green’s answering service.
Once upon a time, before text messages, voice mail, answering machines, and other technology, very important people, such as doctors, actors, and others “on call” 24/7, hired an answering service to field their calls. Ella does exactly that, and Bells Are Ringing is built around the premise that Ella gets involved in her clients’ lives and aspirations. There’s a playwright (Graham Rowat) in need of motivation; a dentist (James Ludwig) who needs someone to promote his songs; an actor (Alwx Puette) who needs a role. The show, a big hit in 1956, and a subsequent film with Holliday starring opposite Dean Martin, gave the showtune library a trio of pop hits: “The Party’s Over”, “Just In Time”, and “Long Before I Knew You”. Bells Are Ringing on Broadway also co-starred Jean Stapleton (before she became known for Edith Bunker on All in The Family), George S. Irving, the legendary character actor from Springfield, MA, and Sydney Chaplin, who was Streisand’s Nicky Arnstein in Broadway’s Funny Girl (music also by Styne).
Jule Styne’s score, deftly orchestrated by Matthew Aument, has some gems besides the trio of pop standards. “I Met A Girl”, “Mu-cha-cha” and “Drop That Name” are all fine, and the latter showcases the best of Comden and Green’s ability to put across a witty lyric. The show is dated in many ways, but the comedy and the music are timeless.
To bring Bells Are Ringing to the stage, Berkshire Theatre Group brought back director Ethan Heard, who staged last season’s A Little Night Music and its two co-stars, Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat, whose performances as the married Count and Countess were the highlight of that production. (They’re married offstage too). Baldwin is one of the most important musical theatre presences on Broadway today. Rowat’s more familiar to television viewers. Heard’s direction keeps Bells Are Ringing zipping along, and Parker Esse’s choreography is excitingly nimble (and beautifully performed by the small ensemble). Joel Fram conducts a great pit ensemble.
The production values are superb, from Reid Thompson’s colorful set to David Murin’s perfect 1950s Manhattan fashions, and Oliver Wason’s lighting. Steve Brush’s sound design balances the orchestra and the singers. All of the performances are fun. Kate Baldwin, in the Judy Holliday role is a triple threat singer, comedienne, and dancer, and she has great charisma. Graham Rowat as Jeff, the playwright, is smooth and suave. I loved James Ludwig as a dentist who improvises showtunes, Cheryl Stern as the owner of the answering service (whose performance as Grandma Tzeitel in Fiddler On The Roof at Goodspeed last year was one of my favorites), and Alex Puette as a Brando wannabe actor.
I had the preconceived notion that Bells Are Ringing would be a relic of Broadway’s Golden Age, biut I was so pleasantly surprised to be swept away by good material, great performances, and the top notch production elements. And, being a dance fanatic, I can’t wait to see more of Parker Esse’s work, when he does the dances for Goodspeed’s It’s A Wonderful Life this fall.
The Berkshire Theatre Group presents “Bells Are Ringing”. Book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Music by Jule Styne. Original production directed by Jerome Robbins. Choreography in the original production by Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Directed by Ethan Heard. Choreography by Parker Esse. Music direction by Joel Fram. Orchestrations by Matthew Aument. Scenic design by Reid Thompson. Costumes by Oliver Wason. Sound by Steve Brush. featuring Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat. Through July 26. The Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA. For tickets: 413-997-4444 or www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio.