Nick at Nite lands a berth on Broadway with the new revival of “Bells Are Ringing.” Tina Landau’s production pays affectionate homage to the breezy, bright musicals of the 1950s, the kind in which grouchy subway riders burst into song at the suggestion of a smile from the ingenue. A lively, competent staging of a sweet but creaky show, “Bells Are Ringing” will need all the gumption of its energetic heroine to stand out amid the season’s competitive musical roster.
Although it boasts an alternately warm and bouncy score with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the 1956 “Bells Are Ringing” has been a tough show to revive due to the singular nature of its original star, Judy Holliday. In Faith Prince, Holliday has at last found a soul sister.
As Ella Peterson, the answering service operator with a yen for meddling in her customers’ lives, Prince is suitably quirky and adorable. She may lack Holliday’s natural vulnerability, but her expressive face and deft gift for physical comedy add their own seasoning to the show. Her performance is more in the style of Lucille Ball, in fact, than Holliday (the carrot-colored wig, however, is a singularly unattractive one). At times the performance is a little strenuous, but it’s effective.
The show’s Silly String plot has Ella falling for playboy playwright Jeff Moss (Marc Kudisch), who can’t seem to get his first act together until she descends upon his bachelor pad to deliver a playful nudge. Ella, who today would probably set up in business as a life coach, also tugs her other clients toward self-fulfillment: the dentist who wants to be a songwriter (a gleefully zany turn from a persistently airborne Martin Moran), the Brando wannabe who needs to lose the marbles in his mouth (Darren Ritchie). Meanwhile her boss at Susanswerphone (a crisp Beth Fowler) gets involved with a vaguely European fellow named Sandor (David Garrison) who’s secretly running a bookie joint.
While we wait — and wait, truth to tell — for the carefully assorted kinks in the plot to become unkinked, Comden and Green’s book cues a series of nifty songs. Kudisch, a standard-issue, square-jawed romantic lead, boasts a lovely baritone that does full justice to “Just in Time,” the best-known standard from the score. Other highlights are the lilting duet “Long Before I Knew You” and Ella’s trio of solos: “The Party’s Over,” the mocking “Is It a Crime?,” to which Prince’s slightly nasal voice adds a comically plaintive wail, and the rousing closer, “I’m Going Back.”
Landau’s staging skips along as briskly as possible, given the episodic contortions of the plot; the idea seems to be to evoke a 1950s coloring book come to life. Men in gray flannel suits cavort with girls in capri pants, beat cops and street sweepers have plenty of time on their hands to join in the antic Comden and Greenery spreading cheer across pavement and park.
Jeff Calhoun’s choreography draws on standard period styles, as do David C. Woolard’s costumes. Both could use a little more personality, as could the clinical set of Riccardo Hernandez, which encases the show in an antiseptic metallic frame. (The whole thing seems to be taking place in that dentist’s office.)
“Is it a crime to end each day with a laugh and a smile and a song?” sings Ella, to which the answer, then as now, is a resounding no. But winning over Broadway audiences with those humble attributes isn’t the sure shot it once was, and the nostalgia this production enthusiastically retails is hardly a rare commodity these days either. All of which means that busy signals may not be a problem for “Bells Are Ringing,” while long-distance service is a distinct long shot.