The dizzy charm, vulnerability, sweetness and warmth of the 1956 musical “Bells Are Ringing” are all absent from this coarse, comic-strip revival. Most of those qualities are also, alas, missing from Faith Prince’s performance as its heroine, Ella (as in Cinderella). The production, which is scheduled to begins previews on Broadway on March 13 for an April 12 opening, is in need of serious work.
The musical, with music by Jule Styne and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is a 1950s fairy tale in which Ella, through sheer goodness of heart and mountains of empathy, makes it possible for three men to follow their dreams, finding her own Prince Charming along the way. The quality of empathy is paramount here: Unless an audience gets to know and care about Ella, the show is empty.
But Prince, in an unfortunate orange wig, seems herself to have little empathy for Ella. While she brings a tough efficiency in the role, she doesn’t fully inhabit this potentially touching character. One misses the late, incomparable Judy Holliday, for whom the show was written and perfectly tailored. This current revival only verifies the belief that “Bells Are Ringing” without Holliday is almost an oxymoron.
Nor does director Tina Landau appear to have any empathy for — or anything to bring to — the tuner. The result is a clunky, insensitive production of a dated musical, rather than a freshly envisioned Broadway-quality revival. That’s a shame, because Styne’s music is a delight, as are Comden and Green’s lyrics.
Visually, the $5 million production also leaves much to be desired. Costume designer David C. Woolard’s sort-of-satirical versions of 1950s pedal pushers and bouffant skirts are often ugly. Even his “high fashion” gowns in grays and silvers for the “Drop That Name” scene seem tacky.
A round-cornered TV screen scrim dominates Riccardo Hernandez’s sets, which suggest that the entire production is taking place in a gargantuan TV. Set pieces made of metal and corrugated plastic leave the stage too ferociously bare, so that there’s never a hint of intimacy in this basically intimate show.
As with the misdirected or miscast Prince, Marc Kudisch isn’t quite right as Jeff Moss, Ella’s love interest. He is too self-consciously busy projecting a leading-man image, and there’s little chemistry between him and Prince. Beth Fowler is disappointingly bland as Sue, David Garrison all wrong physically as Sandor. Robert Ari and Jeffrey Bean bring little to Inspector Barnes and his sidekick, while Martin Moran brings too much to his role as dentist-composer Dr. Kitchell, twitching so spastically as to outdo Jim Carrey. Almost everyone in the cast is projecting caricatures rather than characters.
The dancers work tirelessly, though Jeff Calhoun’s period choreography lacks style. Numbers often point out that dancing isn’t Prince’s forte rather than gently masking the problem. This is particularly true in the “Mu-Cha-Cha” number: If the idea is to suggest that Ella’s clumsiness is amusing, it’s an idea that hasn’t been thought through.
Two songs have been added to this production from the 1960 movie version of the musical starring Holliday and Dean Martin. Ideally, the score should raise goose bumps of joy from the start, but at the performance seen it wasn’t until “Just in Time” in act two that any physical reaction to the score manifested itself. Too much of Prince’s singing is strident, and she doesn’t yet capture the pathos of “The Party’s Over” and the delirious ditziness of “I’m Going Back.”
Overall, this revival currently and quite thoroughly lacks subtlety, which is particularly needed in handling the Comden and Green book, never the musical’s strong point.