The 54-year old musical comedy “Bells Are Ringing” looked mighty creaky on the occasion of its 2001 Broadway revival, with the comic elements seeming especially dated. Encores has nonetheless given the Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green tuner another hearing, and guess what? By presenting the material in a straightforward and non-tricked up presentation, “Bells” turns out to be not only tuneful — with such standards as “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over” — but sprightly, charming and rollickingly funny. Prior Encores offering, Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle,” was an exciting rendition of flawed material; this one takes sturdy material and dresses it in musical comedy sparkle.
Kelli O’Hara, who over the last decade has established herself as the most reliable musical theater leading lady under 40 (or 50, for that matter), carries the show with strong singing accompanied by comic flair. The role of telephone operator Ella Peterson — short for Cinderella, who in this case rides the BMT instead of a pumpkin coach and is magically transformed by a gown from “La Traviata” — was fashioned for Judy Holliday. A few current viewers might complain that O’Hara isn’t a brilliant comedienne like Holliday — but who is? Judging the show here and now, O’Hara is warm, funny, and lovable.
Will Chase (“High Fidelity”), as the dissipated playwright staring at the gutter, is the find of the evening. He is at once a charming leading man and a perfect comic foil. Standing out as Sandor, the mock-Viennese conman, is David Pittu (“LoveMusik”). Rather than simply fielding the many laughs written into the role, he brings the proceedings to life with a demonic twinkle in his eye. Judy Kaye (“Souvenir”) has less impact as the fourth member of the central group.
Most importantly, the actors in the subsidiary roles are each and every one of them very funny: Dylan Baker as an inspector from the vice squad, Danny Rutigliano as his assistant, Brad Oscar as a songwriting dentist, and Bobby Cannevale as a Brando wannabe. This humor has seemed hopelessly dated in recent productions; here, each of their sketch-like scenes boosts the hilarity. Strong assists also come from Jeffrey Schecter as a delivery boy who does a knockout job teaching Ella to dance the cha-cha, and the eight dancers.
Comden and Green devised a comedic shorthand for musical comedies, and this concert version of “Bells” demonstrates just how well this can work. Current-day audiences might be startled by the comic audacity of the show; the plot centers around a scheme to place racetrack bets under the guise of selling classical records. (Green was a fan of longhaired music, Styne an inveterate gambler.) The score ranks second to Styne’s “Gypsy,” which is rarified air. This is the sort of music that the Encores orchestra specializes in, and show sounds great coming from conductor Rob Berman, his 31 pieces, and the chorus delivering Buster Davis’ vocal arrangements.
Chalk it up as an impressive victory for director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall. She did a good job with the 2000 Encores production of Comden and Green’s “Wonderful Town,” which transferred to Broadway. “Bells are Ringing” is even better.