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BWW REVIEW: BELLS ARE RINGING Forces the Comedy in the Berkshires

Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; music by Jule Styne; directed by Ethan Heard; choreography, Parker Esse; music direction, Joel Fram; orchestrations, Matthew Aument; scenic design, Reid Thompson; costume design, David Murin; lighting design, Oliver Wason; sound design, Steve Brush; hair, wig and make-up design, Dave Bova

Cast:

Gwynne and others, Sara Andreas; Ella Peterson, Kate Baldwin; Francis and others, Andrew Cristi; Sandor Prantz and others, Joseph Dellger; Larry Hastings and others, Walter Hudson; Dr. Kitchell, Paul Arnold and others, James Ludwig; Phyllis and others, Kat Nejat; Carl, Blake Barton and others, Alex Puette; Inspector Barnes and others, Greg Roderick; Jeffrey Moss, Graham Rowat; Sue Summers and others, Cheryl Stern; Olga and others, Molly Tynes

Performances and Tickets:

Now through July 26, Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theatre, 111 South Street, Pittsfield, Mass.; tickets are $25, $50 and $65 and are available online at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or by calling the Box Office at 412-997-4444.

Berkshire Theatre Group's revival of BELLS ARE RINGING starring Broadway's charming husband and wife duo Graham Rowat and Kate Baldwin can be described in two words: sensory overload. Director Ethan Heard and his entire creative team have worked the 1956 kitsch so hard that the physical elements overwhelm the performances - and challenge the actors to ratchet things up to a fever pitch just to be noticed.

Admittedly BELLS ARE RINGING is a dusty little musical comedy confection that needs a boffo production to make its dated story of a quirky, warm-hearted telephone answering service operator - well - ring true. But Heard's efforts to make his revival "vibrant, brassy, saturated, sexy, hilarious and wacky" run roughshod over the delicate romance and force the playful comedy into manic farce. Everyone seems to be working in overdrive and even the lilting love ballads like "Long Before I Knew You" and "Just In Time" are belted rather than crooned.

In this Eisenhower Era Cinderella story, perky phone princess Ella Peterson (a rosy-cheeked Baldwin) lives her life vicariously through the messages she takes and delivers for her many celebrity clients. To make her job less tedious, she assumes different identities and accents in keeping with her clients' interests and needs. For the playboy playwright Jeffrey Moss (Rowat) crippled by writer's block, she becomes an older woman called "Mom," dispensing advice and offering moral support. But when Ella accidentally meets the voice at "Plaza 0 double four double three" and inadvertently becomes his muse, the two inevitably fall in love. The big catch is that Ella hasn't told Jeffrey who she really is.

Complicating matters is the inept Inspector Barnes (Greg Roderick), an overly suspicious police detective who is out to prove that "Susanswerphone," the service owned by Ella's cousin, Sue (Cheryl Stern), is just a front for some seedy underworld operation. Of course, unbeknownst to both Barnes and Sue, an organized crime syndicate is operating out of Susanswerphone compliments of the smooth-talking shyster Sandor Prantz (Joseph Dellger). Throw in a frustrated composer working as a dentist (James Ludwig) and an out-of-work actor (Alex Puette) who sees himself as the next Marlon Brando and you have a host of lives just waiting for Ella to make "Better Than a Dream."

The role of Ella is a tour de force that requires, above all, a gifted comedienne. She has to be goofy while also being 100% sincere. The role's originator, Judy Holliday, was the embodiment of those conflicting characteristics. Her humor was effortless, yet her vulnerabilities were always keen. Here Baldwin is lovely, but her physical comedy is much too broad. Ella's delightful self-effacing humor doesn't spring naturally from her. Too often Ella's lovelorn awkwardness is obliterated by even more awkward shtick.

Baldwin's gorgeous voice brings redemption, though, especially in the soulful ballad "The Party's Over." Given the chance to sit quietly center stage in a soft blue spotlight, she turns inward and reflective and lets the lyrics tell the story. Too bad, then, that Heard and music director Joel Fram kill the moment by having the chorus join Baldwin clamorously for the final refrain. Where strings are called for we get trumpets. Such overkill is true for most of this production.

A host of talented actors have been directed to mug their way through this airy piece of Comden, Green and Styne nostalgia. Ludwig fares the best as the would-be songsmith who hears a tune in every spurt of his dentist's air hose. Dellger and Stern are also fun as the love-struck bookie and his unwitting accomplish Sue. Puette struts and grunts laconically as the brawny but not terribly bright actor Blake Barton, and Andrew Cristi proves that his dutiful Francis is much savvier than his dim-witted boss Inspector Barnes. Rowat, meanwhile, with his booming baritone and serious demeanor, seems better suited to a production of LES MISERABLES than this inconsequential trifle. He lacks the essential easygoing devil may care charms of a Rat Pack style playboy. The only time we can truly understand what Ella would see in this hard-drinking, procrastinating lothario is when he's wooing her with the sweet soft shoe duet "Just in Time."

At every turn the cast of BELLS ARE RINGING seems literally boxed in by the set of Reid Thompson. The back and two sides of the stage are walled in at 90-degree angles by eye-popping colored boxes. The effect is designed to suggest a bustling 1950s New York cityscape, but the squares and rectangles that open and close and become backlit to reveal actors talking on phones or spying on Ella evoke the 1960s and '70s television show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In instead.

The set works best when lighting designer Oliver Wason transforms the translucent panels into an elegant penthouse of shimmering soft whites and blues. Here the set becomes a mere backdrop for the stylized choreography of Parker Esse in the novelty number "Drop That Name." David Murin's black and white gowns and tuxes add to the sophistication of the soiree and let Baldwin take the spotlight in the bright red opera dress that makes her look every inch the fairytale princess at the ball.

For all its charms and standard-filled score, BELLS ARE RINGING seems to be one of those musicals that is better in memory than in revival. Its comedy depends on a perfect balance of innate quirkiness and a very big heart. In this Berkshire Theatre Group production director Heard has missed the mark with his overblown cartoonish concept. One wonders how this cast and Baldwin, especially, would have fared in gentler hands.

PHOTOS BY REID THOMPSON AND MICHELLE McGRADY: Kate Baldwin as Elle Peterson; Kate Baldwin; Joseph Dellger as Sandor Prantz and Cheryl Stern as Sue Summers; Kate Baldwin; Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat as Jeffrey Moss; the cast of BELLS ARE RINGING


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