By Bradley Rohlf
The Alpha Players of Florissant bring us back to a time where phones had wires and answering machines had not yet been popularized.
“Bells Are Ringing” is a golden-age Broadway show with music by “Gypsy” composer Jule Styne and lyrics and book by Adoph Green and Betty Comden, the same team that brought us “Singin’ In The Rain.” Its 1956 debut was choreographed by Broadway royalty Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse (Robbins also directed).
It is surprising that a show created by such heavy-hitters could be so unknown and seldom-performed, despite it being a success in its day. Judy Holliday recreated her Tony-winning role in her last film, which starred Dean Martin in 1960. A 2001 Broadway revival starred Tony winner Faith Prince.
Unfortunately, the show aged too quickly due to its primary mechanism for conflict: an answering service. And it’s a shame that the plot relies on a dated technology, because the story is charming and fun. “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over” are familiar songs.
Ella Peterson (Lisa Rosenstock) works at an answering service taking messages for subscribers who can’t make it to the phone right now. Against her boss Sue’s wishes (Mary McCreight), she goes above and beyond the call of duty by involving herself in the lives of those she takes calls for at Susanswerphone..
She helps an aspiring actor (Robert Michael Hanson) adjust his image to get noticed by a director, and she tips off a song writing dentist (Kevin Michael Hester) to an opportunity that changes his life. She also develops a crush on one Jeff Moss (Jeff Kargus), a playwright suffering a bout of writer’s block, and surreptitiously becomes his muse.
Add to the mix a wacky gangster, Sandor (Steven Cook) and a dim-witted detective (Dan Stockton), and we have a recipe for a good old-fashioned madcap mistaken identity love story.
Rosenstock brings an optimistic energy to Ella, jumping into other people’s business with a bright, naive idealism. She is a bit of a precursor to the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope of today.
Kargus captures the arrogance of the New York playboy. Born on first base with a slugger at the plate, he has never had to work too hard for his achievements, but is now slowly facing reality.
Stand-out comedic performances include McCreight and Cook in “Salzburg,” and Hester’s aloof Dr. Kitchell, compelled to work every new phrase into the next catchy hit tune.
The show runs long, which is characteristic of the era in which it was written. However, the creative team made some decisions that did not prioritize pace. Co-directors Janet Maneikis and David Wicks, Jr. move multiple brief scenes that would traditionally be played in front of the curtain into their own setting. This adds extra set movement, and also interrupts the pacing of scenes which otherwise could play as a montage gearing up for the act break.
The platform sets designed by Wicks and Marsha Holland were impressive, but also bulky, which contributed to slow scene changes.
“Bells Are Ringing” is a rare opportunity to see a seldom-staged show, but despite some enjoyable performances, the overall production falls short of its potential.
The Alpha Players of Florissant presents “Bells Are Ringing” Oct. 5 – 14 at the Florissant Civic Center Theater, Parker Road at Waterford Drive in Florissant. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 14 matinee at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.alphaplayers.org or call 314-921-5678.