In Bells are Ringing at ICT Mainstage, comedy reigns supreme. Under the direction of Michael Serrecchia and with an exceptional performance from leading lady Mary Gilbreath Grim, Bells are Ringing is one laugh after another.
This 1956 musical about a good-hearted operator at a telephone answering service who meddles in her client’s lives, features a score by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl) and a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Despite a stiff plot centered on a predictable love story and only a few hummable tunes, Bells are Ringing was revived on Broadway twice in the aughts. In 2010 the inimitable Kelli O’Hara helmed the production directed by Kathleen Marshall for the same winning combination that keeps ICT Mainstage’s production afloat: smart director and a show-stopping dame.
Historically the show has run on the comic prowess of its leading lady. In Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of O’Hara, he noted that the 1956 production “ran for 924 performances on the strength of its sui generis star Judy Holliday.” The part was written for her brassy wit, something Grim emulates. She’s like a flashback to the fast-talking slapstick of the likes of Katherine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell with a smooth voice that glides through “It’s a Perfect Relationship” and “The Party’s Over.”
Grim brings a joie de vivre to Ella Peterson’s do-gooder efforts in her job at Sue’s Answer Phone, offering advice to out of work actor Blake Barton (Jeff Burleson) and playing “mother” to playboy playwright Jeff Moss (a dashing Donald Fowler). She’s fallen in love with the voice of Moss and when she steps outside of the office to help him meet a deadline, the romance begins to unravel. It’s a mawkish story steeped in the meet-cute genre of yesteryear.
A kitschy set design by Paul Fiorella immediately signals this sense of nostalgia. The pastel pink and mint green hues accent the backdrop of the New York City skyline with twinkle lights peeking through a black paper cut out that makes the entire show diorama-like.
But Serrecchia vivifies this world with a knowing sentimentality. From the bumbling Inspector Barnes (James Williams) to the subplot in which Ella’s boss Sue (Stephanie Felton) falls in love with a gambling gangster Sandor (Scott Nixon) this musical is bubblegum fun. Even if the microphones are a bit fuzzy and music director Adam Wright’s string section struggles through patches of music, Bells are Ringing is a delightful romp through the golden age of the musical.