Bells Are Ringing

Bells Are Ringing
Music by Jule Styne to a book and lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green

Ella Peterson – Anna-Jane Casey
Jeff Moss – Gary Milner
Sandor – Fenton Gray
Sue – Corinna Powlesland
Gwynne – Aoife Nally
Inspector Barnes – Richard Grieve
Francis – Michael Bryher
Carl – Carl Au
Larry Hastings – Bob Harms
Blake Barton – Tama Plethean
Dr Kitchell – Adam Rhys-Charles
Paul Arnold – Marc Antolin
Olga – Victoria Hinde
Club Singer – Laura Selwood
Maid – Sasi Strallen

Band: Peter McCarthy (piano), Dan Czswartos (woodwind), A. J. Brinkman (bass) & Joe England (drums)

Paul Foster – Director
Alistair David – Choreographer
Peter McCarthy – Musical Director & Arranger
Christopher Giles – Set & Costume Designer
Tim Mascall – Lighting Designer
Simon Sayer – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 3 October, 2010
Venue: Union Theatre, Union Street, London SE1

The Broadway musical was in a fairly healthy state in the 1950s, allegedly a Golden Age with the likes of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam”, Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls”, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I”, Arthur Schwartz & Dorothy Fields’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, Lerner & Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon”, Harold Rome’s “Wish You Were Here”, Bernstein, Comden & Green’s “Wonderful Town”, Cole Porter’s “Can-Can”, “Kismet” (by Wright & Forrest based on the music of Borodin),“The Pajama Game”, “The Boy Friend”, “Plain and Fancy”, “Silk Stockings”, “Damn Yankees” and in 1956, the longest runner of them all, “My Fair Lady”. The same year also produced “The Most Happy Fella”, “L’il Abner” and, in November 1956, “Bells Are Ringing”, a traditional book-musical with a big star (Judy Holliday) and one of the last shows before the advent of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” and, nine months later, his “West Side Story”, after which the Broadway show radically changed, although traditional musicals carried on successfully side by side with the more innovative shows.

Oddly enough the two people who changed the face of the Broadway musical, namely Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, were both involved with “Bells Are Ringing”, with Robbins as director and as co-choreographer with Fosse. It ran in New York for over nine-hundred performances, a success due in no small part to Holliday, although in London, with Janet Blair as the star, it played a mere three-hundred performances. It was apparently revived in the UK in 1987 with Lesley Mackie, and a Broadway revival in 2001 with Faith Prince barely reached a hundred performances. The 1960 film with Judy Holliday and Dean Martin, directed by Vincente Minnelli and produced by the legendary Arthur Freed, somehow missed the boat, even though the show itself has some great numbers that became hits in their own right – ‘The Party’s Over’, ‘Long Before I Knew You’ and ‘Just in Time’.

The writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green had earlier worked with Holliday and Bernstein in a nightclub act called “The Revuers”, in New York’s Greenwich Village. Their first Broadway musical was “On the Town” with music by Bernstein, based on “Fancy Free”, a ballet by Jerome Robbins to Bernstein’s score. Comden and Green wrote the book and the lyrics and also appeared in “On the Town” which was later filmed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (for whom Comden and Green had also written “Good News” and “The Barkleys of Broadway”), but producer Arthur Freed dropped much of Bernstein’s score. However, they went on to write “Singin’ in the Rain”, “The Band Wagon” and “It’s Always Fair Weather”.Moving back to Broadway their shows included “Two on the Aisle” with Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray, and “Wonderful Town”, with Rosalind Russell and music by Bernstein. They had always wanted to write a show for Judy Holliday ever since their ‘Revuers’ days and the chance came with “Bells Are Ringing”, with an original book and lyrics to the music of Jule Styne who had previously written “High Button Shoes” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. The result was a copper-bottomed hit and it’s odd that it has not fared well in revival. On the strength of Paul Foster’s production at the Union Theatre, “Bells Are Ringing” is a great piece of musical-comedy which definitely has legs. The legs of course come in the shape of the choreography. The film version spurned many of the songs and the choreography but in fact the original show is a dance spectacular of exceptional quality. With Robbins and Fosse on board one would expect nothing less. Here Alistair David provides some great routines and the Union Theatre has cleared its floor for some extensive and exhilarating high kicks.

If the premise on which “Bells Are Ringing” is based seems dated, it does have an air of period nostalgia about it. It concerns the workings of Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service run by Sue and her young ladies who take messages for clients and give them wake-up calls. Comden and Green based their story on the Belles Celebrity Answering Service whose proprietress, Mary Printz, died last year. The service is still going even in the days of mobile phones and voicemail. In the show Ella Peterson (the Holliday role) works for Susanswerphone, taking messages and rearranging the lives of the lovelorn and trying to keep her customers happy. Pretending she is advanced in years, Ella falls for the voice of a would-be playwright and part-time drunk, Jeff Moss; while he calls her Ma, thinking she is a little old lady dispensing advice. Ella eventually becomes indispensible to Jeff and concocts a way of meeting him without his knowing who she is. A subplot involving the police trying to find out what she is up to and another about a client who uses the answering service for a betting racket disguised as a classical music record-ordering service admirably flesh out the comedy themes.

However, the raison d’être for the show is Ella; written for Judy Holliday, it fitted her like a glove, because Holliday specialised in kookiness and off the wall characters. Anna-Jane Casey is just perfect in the role. This tiny bundle of energy gives a luminous performance: she’s fast and delivers the lines with a freshness that is invigorating and without ever aping Holliday; she’s a terrific mover and sings comic-songs and wistful romantic ballads with equal ease; she has you in fits of laughter one minute and then in the next she is doing a marvellous, tearful version of ‘The Party’s Over’. You may have seen Casey (a Lancashire lass who is capable of a brilliant American accent) in “The Comedy of Errors” in Regent’s Park this summer or in the Rodgers & Hammerstein BBC Prom (repeated on BBC4 on 8 October at 7.30 p.m.): she has ‘star’ written all over her.

The rest of the cast are equally gifted, Gary Milner making a real character out of writer’s-blocked Jeff, Fenton Gray giving comic relief as the betting maestro Sandor, and Richard Grieve playing a long-suffering police inspector getting nowhere fast. Corinna Powlesland as the owner of Susanswerphone, looks like Alice Pearce (she who sneezed a lot in “On the Town”). There are some nice running gags with Tama Plethean as a budding actor in the Brando mould and Adam Rhys-Charles as Dr Kitchell, a dentist who can’t stop writing lyrics; and the chorus mightily impresses with its spirited singing and, especially, dancing. Peter McCarthy’s band of four provides brilliant accompaniment. You may not see a better musical than this in London this year.

  • Bells Are Ringing continues at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1until Saturday 23 October 2010
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2.30 p.m.
  • Tickets 020 7261 9876

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