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THEATER / JAN HERMAN : A Real Humdinger : Costa Mesa Civic Wrings Significant Fun From Trivial but Charming 'Bells Are Ringing'

May 07, 1993|JAN HERMAN

You know a theater company has run out of ideas when it chooses to revive "Evita," "Little Shop of Horrors" or "A Chorus Line." Is there anybody left who hasn't done those? Is there any audience that hasn't seen them?

You can also add to the list those mindless retreads of "South Pacific," "My Fair Lady," "The Music Man," "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," "Oklahoma!" "Anything Goes," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Hello, Dolly!" "Bye Bye Birdie," "The Sound of Music," "Fiddler on the Roof" and--how could we forget?--"Camelot."

That's why it was so refreshing to come across "Bells Are Ringing" at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse. This 1956 musical is not often revived, probably because the original production did not win the Tony Award for best musical that year. If it had, it would surely be done to death by now.

Even in its time as a long-running Broadway hit, the show was overshadowed by the competition. "My Fair Lady," the Tony winner, premiered in 1956; so did "Candide" and "The Most Happy Fella," both shorter-lived but also far more critically esteemed. In heavyweight company like that, "Bells Are Ringing" seemed a featherweight bauble.

Which it still is, of course. But that is part of its jaunty, screwball charm.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Jule Styne (who wrote the score) take us back to the old-fashioned innocence of the Eisenhower era. As quintessential Broadway writers, Comden and Green could always be counted on to concoct a dizzy Manhattan story full of bright entertainment. With "Bells Are Ringing" they more or less outdid themselves for silliness.

The story revolves around Ella Peterson, a big-hearted switchboard operator with a mother-hen complex who works at a midtown telephone-answering service. She can't help listening in on the calls of the various misfit clients and trying to straighten out their lives, among them a playwright with a desperate case of writer's block; a dentist who wants to be a songwriter, and an actor who can't get a job.

Ella is no little old lady, however. She has just come to Susanswerphone, as the service is called, from a switchboard job at the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company ("a little modeling on the side"). And now she has fallen in love with one of her Susanswerphone clients, "Plaza oh, double four, double three," because of the sound of his voice. "It's a perfect relationship," she sings, "I can't see him / He can't see me."

In the meantime, Ella's Aunt Sue, who owns the service, is getting conned into taking telephone bets on the horses without knowing it by a bookie posing as a classical-record producer.

"It's a simple little system," he sings to his cohorts, who are instructed to call in record orders. "What is Beethoven? Belmont Park. Where's Puccini? Pimlico. Humperdinck? Hollywood." And so on down the list of composers.

Finally, in the sort of Damon Runyon-style reminiscent of "Guys and Dolls," the whole impossible crowd is being kept under surveillance by a dull-witted detective who suspects the answering service of operating a call-girl ring.

*

"Bells Are Ringing" happens to have been the first show I ever saw on Broadway, which partly explains why it's a sentimental favorite. To this day I still can remember Judy Holliday playing Ella with her inimitable squeaky voice and dazzling smile, but most of all, with her indelible brand of bittersweet comedy.

Holliday won a Tony for her performance (yes, against fellow nominees Julie Andrews in "My Fair Lady" and Ethel Merman in "Happy Hunting"); co-star Sydney Chaplin also won a Tony for his role as playwright Jeff Moss, who turns out to be Ella's heartthrob.

In the Playhouse's amateur production, Blaire Chandler plays Ella more like a robust Debbie Reynolds, bubbling with good cheer and bouncy energy. Her effervescence works, though, because Chandler fits the role to her winning style. She has the right look for Ella--blond and attractive--and what's more, she puts over her songs with feeling, even though she doesn't have a great voice.

As Jeff Moss, Greg Ricks may not have the suave stature of a Chaplin, but he does have a certain polish and a personable manner. He, too, puts over his songs well enough for us to believe him in the role.

The witty score is also a kick. Apart from the evergreens, "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over," there's a slew of upbeat numbers and hummable ballads: "I Met a Girl," "Long Before I Knew You," "Independent," "The Midas Touch" and "Bells Are Ringing," to name a handful.

The rest of the cast brings verve to the stage, which more than makes up for the variable performances. And the production as a whole gets a terrific lift from a live trio--pianist Anita Metz Grossman, percussionist Ron Romano and bassist Susan Cross--that lights up the evening from the opening "Overture" to the closing "Exit Music."

Physically, the show has some oddly entertaining kinks.

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