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Bells Are Ringing

Prodigiously talented Oakley Boycott in the Judy Holliday role reanimates the Comden & Green/Jule Styne musical comedy, giving fresh look to the 1956 show.

Brent Heuser as Jeff and Oakley Boycott as Ella in a scene from “Bells Are Ringing” (Photo credit: Tyler Milliron/Milliron Studios)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Shows written for Ethel Merman, Mary Martin or Barbra Streisand are a hard act to follow but choosing irrepressible Oakley Boycott for the Judy Holliday role in the Musicals Tonight! revivial of the 1956 musical comedy Bells are Ringing was inspired casting. Not only is this standout talent an excellent actress, singer and dancer, but she is more glamorous than Holliday ever was and has a bigger vocal range. Needless to say she makes the role of Ella Peterson aka Melisande Scott entirely her own.

Not that she has had to do it alone. Casey Colgan’s fast paced production has been impeccably cast from tall dashing leading man Brent Heuser as the show’s hero Jeff Moss to all of the other roles. While the Betty Comden & Adolph Green script may be dated now and has become a period piece, it includes many snappy lines, colorful characters and clever lyrics all to Jule Styne’s effervescent and bouncy score. Hit songs include “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over” and “Long Before I Knew You.” This is the sort of musical comedy written just for fun they don’t write any more in this era of the concept musical.

Brent Heuser as playwright/playboy Jeffrey Moss and his entourage played by Caitlin Wilayto,Kacie Burns, Alexandria Van Paris and Andrea Weinzierl in a scene from “Bells Are Ringing” (Photo credit: Tyler Milliron/Milliron Studios)

In the time of the telephone answering service, Ella Peterson works at her cousin Sue’s Susanswerphone. Ella takes her job of helping people very seriously playing Santa, matching up dog lovers, and speaking perfect French to La Petite Bergere Restaurant Francais clientele. She also gets involved with their lives playing the voice of his concerned mother for blocked playwright Jeffrey Moss who she has fallen in love with though she has never met him. When several pieces of information come her way, she visits Moss to make him get back to the typewriter on his second act before his producer drops his option, visits Marlon Brando-clone Blake Barton to tell him to wear a suit to an audition, and drops in on would-be songwriter Dr. Kitchell to notify him about an audition at the Pyramid Club for new material. But Ella has told the smitten Jeff her name is “Melisande Scott” and as she has offered so many true things about himself he thinks that she is psychic. Can she ever tell him the truth and how will he feel about her then?

At the same time, Inspector Barnes (with his sidekick Inspector Francis) has decided that Susanswerphone is a front for a prostitution ring after closing down “All-Alone-A-Phone” which really was. Little does he, Sue or Ella know that Titanic Records which has just joined Susananswerphone is a bookie ring and that Sue’s new boyfriend J. Otto Prantz is the head of the operation. With Francis recording her every move, and Ella trying to help Jeff without his finding out who she really is, the plot is set for a great many comic complications.

Amie Bermowitz as Sue and Cooper Grodin as Otto in a scene from “Bells Are Ringing” (Photo credit: Tyler Milliron/Milliron Studios)

Boycott gets to sing a bounty of scintillating songs including “It’s A Perfect Relationship,” “Is It A Crime?,” “I’m Goin’ Back” and her duets with Heuser in “Better Than a Dream” (written for the film version) and “Long Before I Knew You.” Colgan’s choreography includes witty dance numbers to “Independent,” “I Met a Girl”, “Mu-Cha-Cha,” and “The Midas Touch.” Sue and Otto have a hilarious parody of the operetta aria in “Salzburg (By the Sea),” and the singer and girls of the Pyramid Club do a clever take on a cut-rate Busby Berkeley number to “The Midas Touch.”

The chemistry between Heuser’s Jeff and Boycott’s Ella is palpable and they light up the stage whenever they are together. The supporting cast adds to the pizzazz of this high-powered cast. Cooper Grodin’s European Otto is suave and distinguished as he romances Amie Bermowitz’s very New York Sue. Samantha Gershman as answering girl Gwynne and Nic Thompson as her boyfriend messenger Carl do a breathless routine to “Mu Cha-Cha” which goes way beyond the one ballroom dance. Bill Bateman and Stephen Raymond have an amusing rapport as the two Keystone Kops. As the daffy Dr. Kitchell, Will Porter adds an amusing twist all his own, while Roger Reed’s Blake Barton works hard to sound like Brando. Among the hardworking ensemble who appear in many small roles are Caitlin Wilayto as the chic, poised Veronica who shows Ella the ropes in “Drop That Name” and Tanner Rose who does a droll parody of the lounge singer in “The Midas Touch” number.

Oakley Boycott as Ella Peterson and Stephen Raymond as Inspector Francis in a scene from “Bells Are Ringing” (Photo credit: Tyler Milliron/Milliron Studios)

Jack Maisenbach is responsible for the color-coordinated costumes which include the all black and white collection for the penthouse party sequence and the gold nightclub dancewear for the Pyramid Club scene. However, some of the early floral prints seem out of place for both Ella and Jeff. Devin I. Vogel’s minimal set pieces make for easy transitions between the scenes. Music director and vocal arranger Christopher Stephens along with drummer Adam Kiefer (to alternate with Shelby Blezinger-McCay in week two of the run) make a very fine case for this score as an easy listening classic. Director/choreographer Casey Colgan whose Musicals Tonight!’s hits included Oh, Kay! and Anything Goes gives a fresh look to Bells Are Ringing as a delightful period musical comedy entertainment. And don’t miss Oakley Boycott’s breakout performance as the buoyant and inventive Ella Peterson.

Bells Are Ringing (through October 29, 2017)

Musicals Tonight!

The Lion Theater, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.musicalstonight.org

Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (425 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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