Tony-nominated musicals of the 1950s fall largely into two categories. There are those that have made such a lasting impression that hardly a year goes by without regional theater revivals galore. Shows like South Pacific, Guys And Dolls, The King And I, West Side Story, Damn Yankees, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man make this list. The rest are mostly long-forgotten chestnuts that nonetheless merit a “concert staged reading” from time to time, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Take for instance Pipe Dream, Redhead, or New Girl In Town.

Then there’s Bells Are Ringing, which in spite of a Tony-nominated Broadway revival in 2001, has largely faded into obscurity despite at least three popular standards (“Long Before I Knew You,” “Just in Time,” and “The Party’s Over”) written by the incomparable Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a book that continues to delight five and a half decades later. If ever there were a show in Category B which deserved to be in Category A, Bells Are Ringing is that show, as Sunday’s Musical Theatre West concert staged reading made abundantly clear.

Cutting-edge when it debuted in 1957 with a plot revolving around a telephone answering service (the mid-1950s equivalent of today’s voice mail), Bells Are Ringing may have come across dated in, say, the 1980s. By the year 2012, however, it has become a charming period piece, and one that more than merits a fully staged production—providing a CLO can come up with the 21st Century equivalent of its original Broadway star, Judy Holliday, to play Ella Peterson of “Susanswerphone.”

Beth Malone is just such a star, as those who’ve seen any of her Scenie-winning performances in Sister Act: The Musical, Fade Out — Fade In, or The Marvelous Wonderettes can attest to. Perky, spunky, cute as the proverbial button, and utterly winning in every role she plays, Malone gave MTW audiences ample proof of the above this past Sunday as she sparkled, sizzled, and dazzled, making Ella Peterson her very own creation—and with a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal for this, the third selection in this season’s Reiner Reading Series.

As for Malone’s leading man, even Broadway buffs might not recall that it was not just Holliday who nabbed a Tony but her handsome costar Sydney Chaplin as well, all the more reason to seek out the perfect Jeff Moss to play opposite Malone’s Ella. Musical Theater Star Of The Year 2009-2010 Damon Kirsche is just such a performer, as proven Sunday by the myriad romantic sparks ignited between the two Scenie winners on the stage of the CSULB University Theatre .

Malone’s Ella, like Holliday’s before her, takes her job at Susanswerphone very seriously, so seriously in fact that she not only takes messages, she offers advice, makes matches, and (paraphrasing a certain Dolly Levi) “puts her hand in” wherever she feels needed.

Among Ella’s “needy” are out-of-work Brando wannabe Blake Barton (Adam Trent), dentist-slash-aspiring songwriter Dr. Joseph Kitchell (Louis Pardo), and playwright Jeff, going it alone for the first time in his career and suffering from writer’s block as a consequence.

To preserve her anonymity with Jeff, Ella assumes the identity of 63-year-old “Ma,” but that doesn’t stop her from fantasizing about his appearance. (“Stern as an eagle, shy as a dove? A face that only a mother could love? It doesn’t matter what he is, I’m his, his, his!”) When phone advice doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, Ella concocts a plan to meet Jeff in real life, calling herself Melisande Scott and impressing Jeff, not only with her cutes and smarts, but with her apparent psychic abilities.

Meanwhile back at Susanswerphone, Eastern European Sandor (Nick Santa Maria) is using the answering service to run “Titanic Records,” in reality an illegal horse-betting ring which he describes in “It’s A Simple Little System”. (“We will take those record orders in a very cultured tone. While we’re really booking horses over at Susanswerphone.”) As a sideline, Sandor also pursues romance with Susanswerphone’s Sue herself (Susan Peahl).

The police (a very funny Neil Dale and Frankie Marrone as Inspector Barnes and Francis) get wind of something fishy at Susanswerphone, but not being the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, accuse Sue of running a call girl ring, with Ella as her most popular hooker!

Anyone in doubt that all this will be resolved by the time the Act Two curtain falls has obviously not seen enough 1950s musicals, of which Bells Are Ringing is a particular gem.

Under Michael Betts’ crackerjack direction, Sunday’s Bells Are Ringing turned out to be considerably more than the “minimal staging” announced on the MTW website, and though Actors Equity rules require performers to hold book in hand, these concert staged reading whizzes seemed scarcely ever to even glance at their scripts.

As for the show’s musical numbers, choreographer John Todd and cast deserve an extra round of applause for making Bells Are Ringing one of the danciest “readings” I’ve seen, of particular note given so few hours of rehearsal per Equity rules. Vocally too, these pros harmonized to melodic perfection under the musical direction of Matthew Smedal, who conducted and played keyboards for the production’s top-drawer onstage orchestra.

In addition to stellar performances by the show’s two leads, a hilarious Santa Maria and pitch-perfect Peahl provided splendid support in addition to generating some romantic sparks of their own.

Musical numbers gave supporting players ample opportunity to shine—Parnell Damone as an ironically named Ludwig Smiley in “Hello, Hello, There,” a cha-cha-charming Jeffrey Scott Parsons as Carl in “Mu-Cha-Cha” (a Todd choreographic treat), and a rip-roaring Pardo in “The Midas Touch.”

Completing the expert cast was a team of triple-threat wonders: Brad Fitzgerald as Larry Hastings, Jackie Cox as Olga, and Tracy Pedretti as Gwynne, alongside Telephone Girls, Big Apple Residents, Subway Denizens, Upper Crust New Yorkers, and Susanswerphone Subscribers Jill Marie Burke, Julie Carillo, Cox, Damone, William Martinez, Karen Schnurr, Neil Starkenberg, Clay Stefanki, and Jennifer Strattan.

Allie Roy was stage manager, Mary Ritenhour production manager, and Jake McDaniel sound engineer. Wigs were designed by Anthony Gagliardi.

Bells Are Ringing was produced for the Reiner Reading Series by Betts and David Lamoureux. Ken & Dottie Reiner, the Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, and the National Endowment For The Arts are series underwriters.

The Reiner Reading Series concludes on July 22 with a one-night only presentation of Peter Allen’s Legs Diamond, virtually unseen since its short-lived Broadway run back in 1988. In the meantime, somebody had better get cracking at planning a fully staged Bells Are Ringing. No need to audition stars for this one. Sunday’s MTW cast simply could not have been better!

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
May 20, 2012

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