Everyone Lighten Up! The Bells Are Ringing

Hello, hello there! Lookin’ good! Hi! It’s a pleasure and a privilege to meet you!! Hello, hello there!

Forgive my uncharacteristically cheerful opening. It’s the new sunny me. But you would be feeling pretty good, too, if you’d just seen glorious Faith Prince in the irresistibly nutty (1956) Bells Are Ringing on Broadway. You would be feeling friendly to the whole wide beautiful world out there, unless you work for The Times . Hello there! How are you? Oh good, that’s how I feel, too!

I must add–reluctantly–that at the time of writing I might be the only critic in town who had a wonderful time at the vintage Jule Styne, Bette Comden and Adolph Green frolic. And to that I say, Hello, hello there! It doesn’t bother me, if it doesn’t bother you! Call me a mess, but I’m happy to confess life is suddenly simple. Listen to me and be happy, or listen to them and kill yourself. That’s a pretty good offer, if you ask me. In the infectious, slightly insane spirit of those two legends of the American musical, the masterful, always optimistic Comden and Green, let’s put it this way:

Oh Ben!

Bilious Ben, mightiest among men

Who’s been a naughty boy then?

… Listen to momma now!–

Is it a crime to start each day

With a laugh and a smile and a song?

And is it a crime to end each day

With a laugh and a smile and a song?

Is it wrong?

No! Particularly when we’re in the sure hands of Comden and Green ( Singin’ in the Rain, Wonderful Town, Applause ) and their frequent collaborator-composer, Jule Styne. I once asked Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line– Bennett was then considered the exciting future of the American musical–what were the best times he’d ever had on Broadway. “It’s easy,” he replied. “A Jule Styne overture begins. I sit back in my seat. And everything’s just swell .”

It can’t be otherwise. Styne wrote the fabled score to Gypsy (as well as to Peter Pan , Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , Funny Girl ). On my way to see Bells Are Ringing, it so happens I was feeling low–the usual stuff . “Word” on the show wasn’t good, either. Who creates “The Word?” It used to be all the waiters at Joe Allen’s. Now it’s all the waiters on the Internet. But you can’t escape The Word , you can’t escape reality –unless you’re actually there, blown away by the escapist buoyancy and joy and sheer romanticism of a swell Jule Styne overture.

Bells Are Ringing has three exquisite, classic songs–”Long Before I Knew You,” “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over.”

The party’s over; the candles flicker and dim.

You danced and dreamed through the night;

It seemed to be right, just being with him.

One of the show’s famous novelty numbers, my favorite Jolsonesque “Is It a Crime?”, goes to the carefree, warm heart of the matter. There are some small vintage musicals that delight in having a ball, and Bells Are Ringing is one of them. Corn is no crime, either. (The Marx Brothers didn’t think so, or Comden and Green.) Bells Are Ringing isn’t cynical, it isn’t ironic or “modern.” It’s a charming, madcap fairy tale, beautifully stitched together. There isn’t a gratuitous song in it, and there’s a helluva lot of fun.

To be sure, it’s frothy. Superior toffs scoff at froth. Too bad Comden and Green didn’t write a musical version of Medea instead. But who else would conjure up a plot about adorable Ella (Faith Prince), formerly of the Bonjour Tristesse brassière company and now the telephone operator with a heart of gold, who falls madly in love, sight unseen, over the phone?

It’s crazy, ridiculous; it doesn’t make sense

That’s true–

But what can you do?

The lucky guy is Jeff (Marc Kudisch), the partying playwright. “But all he does is play. He doesn’t write.” Jeff likes to call Ella “Mom” over the phone, but let’s not go into that now. There are also two incompetent cops from the Vice Squad trying to prove that the Susanswerphone service is a call-girl service like All-Alone-A-Phone. Ella helps everyone out, including handsome Jeff, of course, and an insane dentist and would-be composer named Dr. Kitchell (the manically wonderful Martin Moran), who composes terrible songs with his air hose. “I love your sunny teeth / Your funny, sunny teeth / They’re like a pearly wreath that hangs over my heart!”

“Gee, your songs are pretty,” Ella says to him sweetly in the chair.

“Did you like them?”

“Oh, yes!”

“You’re the first one. I lose more patients this way–”

We must also mention among the nut cases a smart Hungarian named Sandor (David Garrison in another winning performance) who’s president of the Titanic Records Company, which turns out to be a cover for illegal bets on the horses. An order for 500 long-playing albums of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Opus No. 3, means 500 bucks on the nose at Belmont, horse No. 6, third race. A great novelty song, “It’s a Simple Little System,” makes it perfectly clear.

Another favorite of mine, “Hello, Hello There!”, takes place on the subway, where everyone is really nice underneath . All you have to do is say hello to a miserable stranger and the sun comes out. Hello, hello there! “Well, well, what do you know / I should have done this a long time ago!” It’s Comden and Green’s good-will anthem to lightening up.

I see no reason not to take their advice. It’s an extra treat, of course, to have Faith Prince back with us on Broadway in a perfect vehicle for her. There are now only about three or four great musical comedy stars left on earth, and she’s the best of them all. Ms. Prince–memorably the ever-loving Adelaide in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls– is a born comedienne who delivers her big solo ballads in Bells Are Ringing beautifully. We embrace such warm-hearted performers as if they’re an endangered species. Bells Are Ringing was first created for Judy Holliday. Faith Prince must surely be her living, fabulous spirit.

Does the breezy new production have its flaws? Does the curtain go up on a show? Sure it has a few flaws. The original director was Jerome Robbins, who also co-choreographed with Bob Fosse. Who today could equal them? The director of the current revival, Tina Landau, and her choreographer, Jeff Calhoun, aren’t having enough fun with the big ensemble pieces. Riccardo Hernandez’s sets seem a little spare or too consciously retro-cool, though David C. Woolard’s period costumes are witty. Marc Kudisch isn’t the leading man for me, though he might be for you. I wish, even so, that they’d cast our hero against type.

But there’s so much to enjoy, as I say. Bells Are Ringing happily mirrors the fancy-free atmosphere of the City Centre Encores! series that gives us such pleasure by rediscovering a lost little gem, a forgotten musical from an innocent past. Or, as the philosophers say:

If it’s a crime to help old ladies across the street,

Then put me in jail!

Without bail!

Bread and water from an old tin pail

If that–if that’s a crime.