By Steven Suskin
15 Jul 2001
BELLS ARE RINGING Fynsworth Alley 302 062 115 2
This spring's unhappy revival of Bells Are Ringing opened April 12 at the Plymouth Theatre and closed June 10 after a mere 68 performances. This Bells was beset by a series of misfortunes, starting - perhaps - with the general unsuitability of the piece for revival. (That is to say, the material is not as good as most people remember it to be.) The revival cast album, surprisingly enough, comes across much better than the show did in the theatre. While the revival was tuning up, Sony Classical released a remastered version of the original 1956 Broadway cast album [SK 89545]. So we now have two new Bells Are Ringing in circulation.
The original starred Judy Holliday, in her greatest musical role. (It was, also, her only successful musical role.) Holliday was a wonderful actress; much of her magic shines through on film. But as a star she had only two major hits: Born Yesterday, which she played onstage in 1946 and recreated on film in 1950 (winning an Oscar); and Bells, which won her a Tony over Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. Many of her other roles were, to some extent, ineffective copies of her Born Yesterday character Billie Dawn.
Bells was written to order for Holliday by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who knew her talents well; they had started together as three fifths of a Greenwich Village nightclub act, The Revuers. Composer Jule Styne - an old-time Hollywood vocal coach — knew how to make a non-singer look good, so the role of Ella fit Holliday like a comfortable old corduroy carpet slipper. Holliday's performance on the Bells CD is wonderfully lovable.
Sydney Chaplin, son of Charles, charms his way through the role. This show is a Cinderella story — Ella is really Cinderella, the Traviata dress is her glass slipper, and Jeff Moss, her sleeping prince, is Cinderella's fairy tale prince. Chaplin wasn't much of a singer, but on stage opposite Holliday he looked "Better than a Dream." Which is why, presumably, he filled the very same shoes opposite Barbra Streisand in Styne's Funny Girl. Not because of his singing or acting talent, but because he was the physical embodiment of the swell-egant prince of Fanny and Ella and Cinderella's dreams.
The revival starred Faith Prince, a top-notch musical comedy performer who has yet to get a star role written to suit her talents. She does a fine job with Ella, singing the songs with a confident assurance lacking in Holliday's performance. The two are not comparable, though; Prince performs it— and performs it well; Holliday simply wears it, like — well, like that comfortable old slipper. Marc Kudisch, too, gives a much more skilled performance of the material than Chaplin — but Syd seems to float through it all effortlessly. (He won a Tony Award too, over My Fair Lady's Robert Coote and Stanley Holloway.) Which album is better? The surprise here, for me, is that the revival CD is even in the running against the grand old classic.
This new Bells is lively, bright, and exuberant. (On CD, that is; on stage it seemed like an out-of-place, forlorn orphan.) The 1956 disc, on the other hand, is definitive, staid, and classy. Original orchestrator Russel Bennett gave the show a classic Broadway sound, which is one reason the 1956 album remains so satisfying. The revival uses a new orchestration, which is unavoidable when a show scored for 26 musicians is booked into a small theatre that can only afford 15. One of the saving graces of the revival CD is that orchestrator Don Sebesky seems to like and respect Bennett's original work; it sounds like he tried to replicate Bennett as much as possible. (Sebesky did the very same type of Bennett adaptation on the 1999 Kiss Me, Kate, with admirable results.)
So both Bells CDs are highly listenable; something of a surprise, given the lack of impact of the revival in the theatre. The 1956 reissue contains bonus tracks of composer Styne performing three songs, welcome curiosities but by no means indispensable. One of the songs that was cut, "Boogie Woogie Shoogie, Baby of Mine," is -- well, pretty strange. (The authors wrote a somewhat better song, "Do It Yourself," for this spot in the 1960 film version.) The revival CD contains two bonus tracks, one containing song fragments by the singing dentist Dr. Kitchell (Martin Moran) and the other featuring Faith's swinging tag to "Is It a Crime?"Continued...