Monday, November 22, 2010

Miracle on 55th Street

Kelli O'Hara (photo by Joan Marcus)

Bells Are Ringing
Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Music by Jule Styne
Directed by Kathleen Marshall
Starring Kelli O'Hara, Will Chase, Dylan Baker, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Kaye, Brad Oscar, David Pittu

November 18-21, 2010
Encores! at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street

Kelli O’Hara has officially become a national musical treasure. From The Light in the Piazza to South Pacific, the lovely soprano has shown that immense vocal talent—complemented by the most appealing stage personality currently on the boards—can carry her through anything, which she proves yet again with her superlative turn as Ella, the slightly ditzy but resourceful telephone operator who finds love in the latest Encores! presentation, the 1956 Comden-Green musical, Bells Are Ringing.

In a role originally enacted—or should that be embodied?—by the inimitable Judy Holliday, O’Hara never falls into the trap of doing a pale Holliday imitation: instead, she makes the part her own through her unforced charm, formidable (but always feminine) stage presence and controlled but powerful voice, which lets loose on the assorted gems scattered throughout this otherwise rickety show, like “It’s a Perfect Relationship” and “The Party’s Over.”

Bells Are Ringing is a dated slice of ‘50s New York as mindlessly frothy romantic fun. Most jokes are groaningly stale, while the plot and characters cardboard at best: but when the music takes over, watch out. Kathleen Marshall wisely keeps the performers front and center, trying her best to minimize the damage caused by goofy plotting, which includes a dimwitted detective who believes that the “Susanswerphone” company is a front for prostitution, when it’s actually (and unwittingly) a front for gambling.

Ignoring such shortcomings, Marshall cooks up some nicely percolating dance numbers during “Hello, Hello There” and “Mu Cha Cha.” Leading man Will Chase—as the creatively blocked playwright Jeff Moss who falls for Ella (and vice versa)—sings well and holds his own opposite O’Hara. David Pittu, Dylan Baker, Judy Kaye and Bobby Cannavale score in a quartet of comic relief roles, with Pittu’s “It’s a Simple Little System” a non-Kelli standout.

But, even more than the sumptuous sounds of the Encores Orchestra under the savvy baton of Rob Berman, O’Hara is the most memorable component of Bells Are Ringing, showing once again that anything is possible when this miraculous performer is onstage.

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