Review: ‘Bells Are Ringing’ at The Fredericktowne Players

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The Fredericktowne Players have just opened their revival of the classic musical Bells Are Ringing. This is an infrequently performed work from the 1950s, that has many charms. Musical theatre completeists will certainly want to check it out. For others, FTP offers an ambitious production with some memorable performances and strong production values.

Sara Eells Charbonneau and Brad Carnes-Stine. Photo by Donald G Plugge.

Bells are Ringing is the story of Ella, a sweet young woman working as an operator for a New York City phone answering service.  (Remember those?) Goodhearted Ella just can’t resist getting involved in her client’s lives and help them solve their problems. She gets hung up (no pun intended) on one client in particular, troubled playwright Jeffery Moss. Despite having never met him, she falls hard for the guy. And the two eventually pursue a relationship. But the artsy Don Draper-ish Moss and working class Ella come from two different worlds. Will their differing backgrounds prove their undoing? Adding to Ella’s woes are the local police force, who suspect that the answering service may be involved in illegal activities.

Bells are Ringing was originally conceived as a vehicle for comic actress Judy Holliday.  It opened on Broadway in 1956, and enjoyed a successful two-year run.  Some of its songs (specifically “The Party’s Over”) became standards.  Holliday recreated her role for the subsequent (unsuccessful) film version, which also starred Dean Martin as Moss.

Revivals of Bells are Ringing are relatively infrequent, and not just because the role of Ella seems too tailor-made for Holliday for anyone else to take it on Bells Are Ringing is very specific to its era, and is best appreciated through that lens. It’s a prime example of Broadway post-war mainstream entertainment. The overall tone is light and accessible. It features nice people encountering mildly challenging obstacles on the road to a happy ending that is never seriously in doubt. Jokes are funny but never subversive. The mobsters are more comical than menacing. Romance is passionate but chaste. (There’s none of the smoldering sexuality that theatergoers would see in West Side Story, which opened on Broadway a year later.)

Director Devin Taylor’s production preserves the accessible fun of Bells are Ringing. The cast is game and was clearly having a ball on stage. The show grew on me. Big cast number highlights include “Mu Cha Cha,” where Ella learns the new dance, and “Hello There,” in which a group of random subway riders suddenly become friends. (It’s a fun song, and typical of the show’s aggressively innocent outlook.)Another highlight was “Drop That Name,” in which Ella attempts to fit in with a group of artsy elitists at a party. The number was sung and danced with comic precision, and brought some much welcomed satirical edge to the show. Choreography, credited to Michelle Boizelle, Brad Carnes Stine, Sara Charboneau, and Kendall Sigman was consistently inventive, with period-specific touches.

The cast of ‘Bells Are Ringing.’ Photo by James Charbonneau.

Sara Charbonneau plays Ella with high comic vigor and appealing warmth. She nicely located Ella’s eccentricity, loving heart and hidden insecurities.  Her songs, including the familiar standards “The Party’s Over” and “Just In Time” were very strong. Brad Carnes-Stine brought laconic Dean Martin-esque charm to the role of Jeffery Moss, and danced with confident ease.

Rick Weldon and Joy Gerst. Photo by Donald G Plugge.

Among the supporting players, Joy Gerst was pure fun as Sue, Ella’s long-suffering boss. Rick Weldon was effectively Machiavellian as bookie Sandor Prantz. His number, articulating his elaborate bookmaking scheme (“It’s a Simple Little System”) was a first act highlight. Matt Kopp, a last minute replacement in the role of Moss’s boss was effective and memorable.

Sets by Kate Cawley and Devin Taylor were both colorful and functional. One set in particular, a New York subway car was especially memorable. Kirk Bowers’ costumes were fun and period specific. I loved the classic fifties butterfly eyeglasses on the women. The show featured a strong live band, led by Ethan Lichtenberger. Lighting by Steve Carins was professional and effective.

For an interesting look back at 1950’s Broadway and for a fun time, be sure to check out The Fredericktowne Players’ Bells Are Ringing.

Running Time: Three hours, including an intermission.

Bells are Ringing plays through February 5, 2017, at The Fredericktowne Players performing at the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater at Frederick Community College – 7932 Opossumtown Pike, in Frederick, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.