Monday, July 29, 2013
Theater review: MainStage Irving puts on a reverberating Bells are Ringing
It's a feel-good story replete with happy ending and phenomenal pipes.
IRVING Formerly ICT Mainstage, the newly re-branded MainStage Irving - Las Colinas, caps its 2012-2013 season with a “shout out” to Comden and Green, Bells are Ringing. This classic musical is everything one would expect from the wonderful company at MainStage and with the direction of Michael Serrecchia. It's packed full of fun, beautiful singing and incredible performances.
Bells are Ringing, starring Judy Holliday, premiered on Broadway November 29, 1956 and ran for 924 performances. In 1960 a film adaptation also starring Judy Holliday with Dean Martin was released.
Three of the show's songs, “Long Before I Knew You,” “Just in Time,” and “The Party's Over”, became popular standards of the 1960s. In recent times, however, modern critics and producers called the show dated and out of touch with modern audiences after a barely successful revival in 2001. The revival garnered two Tony Award nominations and two Drama Desk Award nominations but zero wins.
The plot revolves around Ella Peterson, who works for an answering service, Susanswerphone, in New York City in the mid-1950s. Her job allows her to get clandestinely involved in the lives of her clients, giving them tips based on the information she receives in the phone messages. She doesn't do this to be harmful or spiteful or for personal gain, it’s that, as pointed out in the show, she just “has so much love to give” and truly cares for the people with which she interacts.
Through exposition conversation the audience learns that one client, Jeff Moss, a playwright who recently left his partner and is trying to strike out on his own, has become the object of Ella's affections although she is determined to never let him know about it. Soon the two “accidentally” meet and a sudden romance begins. Meanwhile, Susanswerphone is being investigated by Inspector Barnes and his sidekick, Francis, under suspicion of being an escort service.
Also, Ella's cousin Sue, the owner of Susanswerphone, has become romantically involved with Sandor, a bookie disguising his business as a record sales company and taking orders through Susanswerphone. As per usual, boy gets girl, the police get the bad guys and everything ends happily ever after.
Musically, Bells are Ringing is astounding. Adam C. Wright has crafted a rich, full sound with only a five piece band. Each song is perfectly orchestrated and each performer's voice blends into the overall sound completely. The music direction in this production is easily the best I've seen this year.
Megan Kelly Bates' choreography is a joy to watch. It's appropriate for the time period as well as changes with the characters. The swinging “mods” in Jeff Moss' apartment dance in a different style than the bookies in Sandor's group even though both groups are played by the same core group of actors. Great attention to detail and character is given and it pays off. However, there are a couple of scenes that become so frantic with movement it is easy to lose Donald Fowler, as Jeff Moss, in the array.
The set is simple yet finely crafted. A well-painted representation of New York City's famous skyline dominates the upstage scenery while four doors plus two downstage legs provide a wealth of traffic lanes to be utilized. A platform separates the upstage performance area from the downstage area, while a large gap between the walls makes it easy to separate scenes on either side of the stage. Jeff's apartment always appears house right, while Susanswerphone's office always appears house left. Additional scenery wagons make changes quick and seamless. The most impressive scene change has a subway car with sliding doors set upstage center during “Hello, Hello There.”
The costumes are appropriate and well put together. There is nothing glaringly out of place.
Costuming was most important for distinguishing the different ensemble characters, from the homeless characters aboard the subway car, to the swinging “hip” party goers in Jeff Moss' apartment, to the high class socialite name droppers. The peak of design is a collection of skirts that quickly fold into evening gowns before the audience's eyes with the release of a couple fasteners in the opening number “Bells are Ringing.”
Excellent use of lighting elevates the atmosphere of each scene. From flickering lights in the subway car as it barrels past stations, to leafy shadows casting a romantic air upon a twilight meeting. Also, downstage specials give an area for between scene action that covers the scene changes and prevents the audience from sitting in darkness.
The sound design is the only technical aspect of this performance that suffers from a couple minor hiccups. First was Stephanie Felton's failing microphone which projected a grating hissing sound into the house most of the time she was on stage. The one time the hissing stopped was when the microphone cut out, which was apparent as it happened during Felton's lines. Another issue is the choice to use a beeping phone ring after hearing several standard bell rings. It is as if the wrong phone ring was cued from a list and was slightly jarring to hear after being effectively pulled into the world of the play by the excellent performances and design.
The splendid Mary Gilbreath Grim plays Ella Peterson and nobody could be a better choice. Her voice is strong and clear as she belts her way through one song after another. She woos the audience with her sweet, innocent character then knocks them dead with a perfectly timed joke.
Donald Fowler croons and charms his way through Bells are Ringing as Jeff Moss and it is quickly apparent why Ella Peterson has fallen for him. His straight man part is no match for the tour de force that is Grim's Ella and he is sometimes overshadowed by her performance.
The head strong Inspector Barnes, played by James Williams, a modern day version of the Commedia del Arte Il Capitno, and his pint sized sidekick Francis, played by Jamison Green, are a great comedy duo. Utilizing their size difference on several occasions, the pair provides sight gags that keep the audience laughing between written jokes.
Speaking of comedy, who knew Peter Di Cesare could be so funny? Granted, I haven't seen much of his work but this performance shows a whole new side of Di Cesare I didn't know existed. He creates show-stopping hilarity every time he appears on stage as Dr. Kitchell, the neurotic dentist who is an aspiring composer.
Scott Nixon plays the closest character Bells are Ringing has to a villain, the German bookie Sandor. He's wonderfully slimy and plays into Stephanie Felton's comedic come-ons with glee. Sue desires Sandor with an all too obvious and comical passion. She strikes ridiculous poses in attempts to catch his eye. Her performance keeps the laughs rolling throughout the show.
A fantastic core of talent comprises the ensemble of Bells are Ringing, each individual capable of playing lead roles. They harmonize exquisitely under the direction of Adam C. Wright, keep up with Megan Kelly Bates' choreography and remain engaged in each scene. Adding their own flair to the show, they enrich the audience's experience.
Michael Serrecchia once again demonstrates he has the Midas Touch in the DFW theatre world. With this solid gold production, his string of hits continues. Two more weekends of Bells are Ringing are all that's left, and I highly recommend you make plans to see it.
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