Kate Baldwin connects in ‘Bells Are Ringing’ at Berkshire Theatre Group
PITTSFIELD — The world of musical theater lost Betty Comden in 2006 and Adolph Green in 2002. But the fruits of their collaboration live on, each production serving as a kind of posthumous tribute to the enduring appeal of their brand of wised-up wit.
Comden and Green’s “On the Town,’’ with music by Leonard Bernstein, and “On the Twentieth Century,’’ with music by Cy Coleman, are running simultaneously on Broadway (and both productions are superior to the show that beat them last month for the Tony Award as best musical revival, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I’’).
Now Berkshire Theatre Group is presenting the undeniably dated but nonetheless charming “Bells Are Ringing,” directed by Ethan Heard and starring a never-better Kate Baldwin and her husband, Graham Rowat. For this 1956 musical, Comden and Green (book and lyrics) teamed up with composer Jule Styne, who later would create the score for “Gypsy’’ with a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim.
“Bells Are Ringing’’ is certainly no “Gypsy’’ (what is?), and it’s not in the same league as “On the Town’’ or “On the Twentieth Century,’’ for that matter. But it offers an entertaining window onto what the traditional American musical looked and sounded like at the moment in time when rock ’n’ roll was muscling its way to permanent cultural primacy. (There’s a running gag in the show about another fountainhead of rebellion in the 1950s, Marlon Brando. One slouching, mumbling wanna-be Brando is admonished: “Remember, there’s only one Marlon Brando, and that’s Tab Hunter.’’)
After a somewhat sluggish start, the BTG production uncorks and sustains a fizzy energy. Heard’s affection for this material is palpable, and he draws deft performances from his cast. Baldwin shone last summer in BTG’s Heard-directed “A Little Night Music’’ (and last month in “Simply Sondheim,’’ with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra), but it is in “Bells Are Ringing,’’ showcased in a lead role, that this skilled actress-singer gets to fully demonstrate her versatility.
She plays Ella Peterson, an employee at a New York telephone-answering service who suits her personality to fit each client. She can’t help getting involved in their lives, and ends up connecting several of them in a roundabout way. One of those to whom Ella extends solicitude is Jeffrey Moss, a stalled playwright, well played by Rowat. Having never met Ella, Jeffrey is under the impression that she is an elderly woman; he calls her “Mom.’’ He’s struggling to finish his first play since the departure of his writing partner. Under an assumed identity, Ella arranges an in-person meeting with the beleaguered playwright and proceeds to act as a kind of muse to him.
The subscribers to the answering service, which is run by Sue Summers (Cheryl Stern, very good), include a dentist who dreams of being a songwriter, played with goofy gusto by James Ludwig, and a (deservedly) unemployed actor portrayed by Alex Puette. In an effective touch by set designer Reid Thompson, subscribers are initially silhouetted in a Mondrian-like grid located upstage. A not-especially-bright police inspector, played by Greg Roderick, is sniffing around, convinced the answering service is illicit, like the one recently shut down for being a front for a “lonely hearts club.’’
When Sue succumbs to the charms of a scheming bookmaker (played by Joseph Dellger), the service does indeed become a front for a criminal operation, unbeknownst to Sue and Ella. The plot consequently thickens, but not all that much. “Bells Are Ringing’’ is more than happy to skim the surface, and it’s a mostly enjoyable ride.
Baldwin and Rowat (who also appeared in “A Little Night Music’’) have a nicely relaxed chemistry in numbers like “Just in Time’’ and “Long Before I Knew You.’’ Baldwin demonstrates impressive comedic chops throughout, including in the clever “Drop That Name,’’ a scene in which Ella is attired in an eye-catching red dress at a party where everyone else is dressed in black and white. (The costumes in “Bells Are Ringing’’ are outstanding; they were designed by David Murin, working on his 43d production for the company.)
As the haughty guests drop name after name — Irving Lazar, Irwin Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, “Mary and Ethel’’ (Mary Martin and Ethel Merman) — Ella tries to keep up, while making a couple of cheeky attempts to subvert their pretensions. That scene segues into Baldwin’s performance of “The Party’s Over,’’ probably this musical’s best-known song. Baldwin nails it with a just-right air of wistful resignation, but that’s not the last word in “Bells Are Ringing.’’ In a show this high-spirited, another bell is bound to ring sooner or later.
BELLS ARE RINGING
Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Music by Jule Styne.
Directed by Ethan Heard
Choreography, Parker Esse. Music director, Joel Fram. Set, Reid Thompson. Costumes,
David Murin. Lights, Oliver Wason. Sound, Steve Brush.
Berkshire Theatre Group
At: Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, through July 26
Tickets: $25-$65, 413-997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org