Bells Are Ringing Pays Attention to a Show That Shouldn't Be Overlooked

The set-up:
Composer Jule Styne was a squat little tough, always with a cigar, and always in debt from constant gambling.
But he always dressed impeccably. Natty was the word. His music is like this, too; brassy (the classic Gypsy, for one), New York wise (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), a bit shady (Sugar), stylish and crisp (Peter Pan; Funny Girl). His longest running show in the '50s was Bells Are Ringing, his collaboration with the dynamic duo lyricists and librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin' in the Rain; On the Town; The Will Rogers Follies; On the Twentieth Century; The Band Wagon).

Styne's “up” music for Bells is jazzy with a whiff of Gershwin, and the melodious ballad, “The Party's Over,” has become a late standard in the American Songbook. Written as an original work for the incandescent Judy Holliday (a fellow actor years before with Comden and Green in their revue act, and by 1956 an Academy Award-winner for Born Yesterday), Bells is a definite star vehicle, tailored to show off Holliday's unique blend of vulnerability and sass. She, too, like Styne's robust music, could be brash yet stylish. Although the Broadway musical, directed by Jerome Robbins and co-choreographed by Bob Fosse, was faithfully adapted into an MGM musical in 1960 starring Holliday and Dean Martin, the show, after playing for almost two years, disappeared into the ether. It was so identified with Holliday that producers were wary to revive it.

The execution:
Paul Hope's Bayou City Concert Musicals is not so so shy.

BCCM has lovingly resurrected this tuneful gem, dusted it off, and found a glittering Jennifer Gilbert to star as Ella, intrepid gal at Susanswerphone, a Manhattan answering service. Sweet and kooky, with a distinct vocal clarity, Gilbert carries this show and turns it into a personal triumph. A delightfully natural comedienne, she's just as adroit in the softer scenes, where her expressive eyes and body language, coupled with that smoky Kewpie-doll voice, tell us exactly what she feels about Jeff.

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Of course, she's not alone in making Bells ring so harmoniously. Comden and Green supply a raft of zany characters to kick start the show whenever it threatens to stray. For all its felicity and wise-ass demeanor, Bells is still a '50s Broadway book show, which means it needs a push to put over some lame joke or musty contrivance. The supporting players, under Hope and Mitchell Greco's snazzy co-direction, bring smiles to our face with the ease which these pros vault over creaky material. They make Bells fresh.

Eons before there was email, texting, or Facebook, there was something called an answering service. Believe it or not, a real live person answered your phone, wrote down messages, and then passed them on when you called in later. It was quite the thing back in the prehistoric era. Ella (Gilbert) works as an operator. Interested and overly sympathetic to her clients, Ella gets involved in their lives from afar, giving them advice and pep talks. She fantasizes most about playwright Jeff (stalwart musical star John Gremillion). What does he look like, she wonders in “It's a Perfect Relationship.” When he doesn't answer his morning wake-up call, she goes to investigate. She likes what she sees but can't confess that she's his answering service and has betrayed his confidence, so she lies to him. In perfect musical comedy sense, she nevertheless spurs him to write his play, overnight of course, and they both fall in love.

She helps a Method actor á la Brando (Richard Sabatucchi) make better career choices, and then becomes the inspiration for dentist Dr. Kitchell (a radiantly goofy Joel Sandel) to channel his inner songwriter. Meanwhile, employer Susan (Chesley Ann Santoro) is being cheated by sly grifter Sandor (sly Charles Krohn), and the entire business is under surveillance by Inspector Barnes (Jon L. Egging), who suspects prostitution, drugs, or some other nefarious business. It's all wonderfully silly make-believe with songs and dances, sort of a lost art form. Watching theater vets Santoro and Krohn twinkle in mischief is a special treat, and, believe me, you haven't seen anything until you see Sandel joined by a chorus line of dentists in gold lamé as they belt out the doctor's new tune “The Midas Touch.”

The verdict:
Mr. Hope adores neglected Broadway musicals, and what we adore about BCCM is its total commitment. The orchestra, under maestro Dominique Røyem, breezes through Styne's original orchestrations with verve and bounce. Count them, 23 musicians! Sweet saxes and clarinets, lush strings, a full complement of brass, ten strings! The sound is full and rich, no tinny synthesizers here. When the entire chorus joins the orchestra's full burst in “Hello, Hello There” or the finale of Jeff's exuberant “I Met a Girl,” jiving to choreographer Melissa Pritchett's spirited routines, you'd swear you're back on 44th Street at the legendary Schubert where Bells premiered. It's quite a rush.

Bells Are Ringing continues through September 20 at Heinen Theatre at Houston Community College, 3517 Austin Street. Purchase tickets online at bayoucityconcertmusicals.org or call 713-465-6484. $25-$50.


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