With this unusually polished production of “Bells Are Ringing,” the inconsistent Reprise! series once more lays claim to the musical-revivals crown. This wisp of a show, with music by Jule Styne and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, may be nothing more than a lighthearted, slightly dopey romance, but in this committed staging it seems much greater.
Chief among its assets is the astonishing Carolee Carmello, who recently nabbed a Tony nom for her starring role in the now-shuttered “Parade.” Here she plays Ella Peterson, aka Melisande Scott, an overly helpful answering-service operator ridiculously in love with lazy would-be playwright Jeff Moss (Stephen Bogardus).
Carmello’s achievement is not only that she actually makes us root for this unlikely pairing, but also that she convinces us of her character’s ability to transform lives, including that of a dentist and actor.
One of those force-of-nature performers, Carmello is equal parts Lucille Ball and Ethel Merman in this production. In songs like “It’s a Perfect Relationship,” “Is It a Crime?” and the showstopping “I’m Going Back,” she winningly conveys utter conviction and the warmest of hearts. Her flexible voice, ideal for tuners, only furthers our joy.
Stephen Bogardus’ Jeff Moss lacks that last measure of charisma but he sings, acts and dances securely, at times with aplomb. And in “You’ve Gott o Do It,” when Jeff battles both his demons and the typewriter, Bogardus is at his considerable best.
The supporting players prove no less able. Brooks Almy’s gullible Sue, Ella’s employer, is downright cherishable. And Gary Beach has no end of fun with Sandor, Sue’s deceiving Continental suitor, a bookie who pretends to be a record producer. Their duet, “Salzburg,” a song that reveals Comden and Green at the top of their game, is perhaps this show’s most endearing number.
In smaller roles, Joe Joyce maximizes the comic potential of Dr. Kitchell, the dentist who wants to be a songwriter. And Troy Britton Johnson does well with Brando manque Blake Barton.
Helmer Don Amendolia has drilled his cast well and the show moves at a rapid, though not rushed, pace. Impressively, none of the performers is on book, a right Reprise! reserves and often employs. Kevin Carlisle’s choreography, based on earlier work by Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, makes a positive impression, with “Mu-Cha-Cha” one of this production’s highlights. As ever, Peter Matz and his excellent 13-piece band give the score a rousing, toe-tapping reading.