Many years ago, I saw a movie (I wish I could remember the title) whose premise was that when a Broadway show is a hit, the investors watch every penny; when it's a flop, they don't care - so you can clean up. As I endured this revival of "Bells Are Ringing," I wondered if its producers had seen that movie. They seem to have taken every possible step to guarantee failure. For a musical that is a valentine to New York, they hired a set designer whose work is so bland you have the feeling he has never even been here. For a show that depends enormously on charm, they hired a director whose sense of humor is largely coarse. For the part of the leading lady, who has to have great warmth, they have hired someone who is transparently calculating. Plus, they hired a costume designer who dresses her as unflatteringly as possible. They have not missed a trick. It's really very sad, because "Bells Are Ringing" is one of Betty Comden and Adolph Green's most appealing shows. It contains some of the best songs they wrote with Jule Styne - "Long Before I Knew You," "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over," to mention just the ballads. Set in the '50s, a world without answering machines, voice mail or cell phones, the story is about Ella Peterson, who works for a telephone answering service and becomes involved in the lives of people she knows only as disembodied voices. It's patently silly, but it can be endearing if you work on the assumption that the characters are human beings. Apparently, no one here believed there were such things in the '50s. As a result, everyone is merely a cartoon. This is particularly true of Faith Prince, who is woefully miscast as Ella. (Half the women in "A Class Act," especially Randy Graff, would be better suited to the role.) Prince gives no indication Ella's a person - just someone who does shtick. Worse, when she sings, she often relies on nasality to create a musical climax. It's not all her fault and she certainly gives it her all. She gets no help from director Tina Landau, who turns even "Just in Time" into a pretext for sight gags. Almost every scene is pitched at a level of hysteria. There's no time for tenderness or quiet pathos. During the first act, Marc Kudisch plays the man on whom Ella has a crush as a sleazy drunk. He becomes more charming in the second, but it takes too long to believe the two could be attracted to each other. He at least sings suavely. Beth Fowler, as Ella's boss, is virtually the only person who seems grounded in reality. David Garrison is very funny as her manipulative Hungarian lover, admittedly a broadly written role. Martin Moran is also droll as a dentist who composes songs on his air hose. One commendable touch is that "Better Than a Dream," a great song written for the film version, has been included. "Bells Are Ringing" has always been one of my favorite shows. It defined New York for me in my adolescence in the provinces. The provinces, I'm afraid, are where this hopelessly misconceived revival belongs.
If you haven't seen Faith Prince in "Bells Are Ringing," which opened at the Plymouth Theatre last night, you might be wondering just why this 1956 musical is being revived.
Unfortunately, if you have seen it, the same question might be buzzing in your ears. It has solid virtues, but it's surely only a fringe Broadway classic, a sort of golden-plate oldie.
It owes its reputation, apart from being a vehicle for Judy Holliday in the role now given by Prince, to its lovely Jule Styne score, with its super lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, containing at least three standards, "Long Before I Knew You," "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over."
Yet the Comden and Green story - Cinderella meets the telephone - is tenuous even by the standards of late vintage Broadway musicals. And the sagging staging by Tina Landau seems to make the least of its possibilities.
The story concerns Ella, a young woman working in a then newfangled telephone answering service, called Susanswerphone. She muddles and meddles in the lives of her clients, even to the extent of falling in love with one of them, sight unseen.
As one of the wittier lyrics points out, if Juliet had entrusted her message for Romeo to Ella rather than Friar Laurence, "Those two kids would be alive today."
So despite the difficulties of a drunken suitor and a sub-plot concerning a gambling racket, the resourceful if diffident Ella should be able to bring her own love affair to a happy conclusion.
Apart from Prince, the new version is only modestly well cast. David Garrison is briskly amusing as the bookmaker conman; Martin Moran has fun as a nerdish musical dentist, and Beth Fowler makes a matronly Susan of Susanswerphone.
But then there is Marc Kudisch as a singularly charmless if energized hero, and the ensemble lacks much in the way of spirit - or, for that matter, direction and choreography. Landau and Jeff Calhoun are clearly no match for the original team of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.
Properly the whole show, from its opening video on, is very '50s in tone, and this has been faithfully followed by the designs of Riccardo Hernandez' scenery and David C. Woolard's costumes.
But for a Broadway musical, fidelity is not enough, and although I understand the show cost millions, it manages to look cheap rather chic.
Faith Prince is almost enough. She has the kind of quirky comedian voice, the go-for-it attitude and that nutsy-brave-waif spirit that infuse Holliday herself in the movie.
Prince is a royal family all unto herself, and she is as splendid in this as anyone could be. But even a queen needs a court, a master of ceremonies and a palace. And here "Bells Are Ringing," but go largely unanswered.
Faith Prince doesn't have an arch bone in her body, God bless her. Planted at the center of the mothball-scented revival of ''Bells Are Ringing,'' which creaked open last night at the Plymouth Theater, she exhales the hopeful freshness of a newly sprung tulip.
There's not an ounce of self-protective distance, no knowing winks as she scrambles through an obstacle course of shtick and kitsch that was considered dated even in 1956. Actually, antiquated was the word Brooks Atkinson used in his opening night review. The great comic actress Judy Holliday made ''Bells'' worth seeing, Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, but it was a mighty big burden to place on one woman's shoulders.
Ms. Prince, who won a Tony Award for her sublimely wistful Miss Adelaide in the 1992 revival of ''Guys and Dolls,'' has even heavier lifting duties and probably the wrong set of muscles to execute them. It's not her fault if she finally can't hoist this yellowing bit of fluff into the present tense.
Playing a telephone answering service operator of that bygone personality type known as irrepressible, Ms. Prince is sincerely, unconditionally there. When she's alone on the stage in a spotlight, singing a Jule Styne ballad with her heart in her larynx, we're right there with her -- and if it happens to be in the mid-1950's, so be it.
The rest of the show, directed by Tina Landau, appears to be somewhere else. Where exactly I haven't figured out. Nor, I would suspect, have its creators.
Everything in the production, its leading lady aside, feels second- or thirdhand. The tone isn't nostalgic; it's not even ironic. It's simply affectless. I kept thinking of those television spots for the Gap in which choruses of clean young people in clean T-shirts and glazed expressions performed pop and musical comedy songs. The difference is that in the ads, the air of indifference was deliberate.
Ms. Landau is best known for her lively experimental work, including the oddball outdoor musicals ''Stonewall'' and ''The Trojan Women.'' Presumably she was hired to give ''Bells'' a shot of 21st-century savvy, since the show's book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green are so clearly anchored to their period. Yet Ms. Landau fails to impose any rejuvenating point of view.
The show has a bright shell of a surface but no mind of its own to make it move forward. It's as if -- like the hero of ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' next door -- the musical had been given a prefrontal lobotomy to keep it tame.
The evening begins with a smugly distanced glance at the way we were during the overture. (The gleaming musical direction is by David Evans, with fine orchestrations by Don Sebesky.) Black-and-white film is projected onto what looks like a giant, old-fashioned television screen: newsreel images of fashion models in silly hats, Hula-hoops, Howdy Doody, Marilyn Monroe, etc.
This poses an unfair challenge to whatever follows. Should we go on pretending we're watching television, as if ''Bells'' were a vintage sitcom? Perhaps so, since our first vision of Ms. Prince, red-haired and rubber-mouthed, brings to mind not Judy Holliday but Lucille Ball.
On the other hand, the overall look of the show is more aloof and consciously campy. The sets (by Riccardo Hernandez) and costumes (by David C. Woolard) give off that heightened mix of flippancy and adoration that shows up on fashion runways when designers are being retro. There are backdrops with giant martini glasses and modernist skylines seen beneath wavy walls of glass.
Many of the clothes pay literal-minded tribute to movies like ''Funny Face'' and ''On the Town.'' The palette throughout evokes a world perceived through Technicolor glasses. Indeed, ''Bells'' sets new standards for color coordination in musicals.
The party sequence that introduces the show's hero, an urbane playwright named Jeff Moss (Marc Kudisch), is a study in turquoise and black that eclipses the singing and dancing. During a jittery comic turn by a singing dentist (Martin Moran), you keep focusing on his bright orange socks, which match Ms. Prince's blouse.
When color is the star of the show, you can smell the desperation of camouflage. It's true that the book of ''Bells Are Ringing'' is patchy, with topical satire that has long since passed its expiration date. And the songs, while percolating gently with Stynean tunefulness, are largely a parade of novelty numbers.
This makes sense when you remember that Ms. Comden and Mr. Green had worked with Holliday as part of the Revuers, the popular comedy team. In tailoring ''Bells'' especially for the actress, they created a platform on which she could dazzle with a variety of disguises, voices and song styles.
Hence the creation of Ella as an employee of Suzaphone, an answering service run by her cousin, Sue (Beth Fowler), allowing her to pretend to be whatever her clients want her to be. Among them is Jeff, who is drinking to forget writer's block and whom Ella loves sight unseen. Realizing his career is in jeopardy, she leaves the switchboard to put his life in order, happily rearranging a few other lives along the way.
This occurs in a series of vaudeville-like turns in which Ella's bubbly presence revitalizes a jaded world. But while the beguilingly vulnerable Ms. Prince has a warmth that extends to the upper balcony, hard-sell clowning has never been her strong suit.
A number in which Ella turns a sullen subway car into a festival of good will never acquires that effervescent frenzy it needs. This is true of most of the ensemble numbers, which keep defusing into flatness and could definitely benefit from pruning.
This is partly because Ms. Landau seems to have no natural instinct for physical comedy; partly because Jeff Calhoun's choreography nearly always feels ersatz. (The original choreographers in 1956 were Jerome Robbins, the show's director, and Bob Fosse.) Pizazz, to use a period word, is seldom in evidence, and the dutiful ensemble never musters that intoxicating love of performing that makes even mediocre musicals enjoyable.
Ms. Fowler, a memorable Mrs. Lovett in the 1989 revival of ''Sweeney Todd,'' blends into the wallpaper here. David Garrison has slightly more oomph as a con man running a betting syndicate that uses the names of classical composers as a code. (This is the occasion for yet another showstopper manqué, the gleeful choral takeoff ''It's a Simple Little System.'')
Mr. Kudisch has a square-jawed leading-man handsomeness and a baritone to match, pleasantly deployed on songs like ''Long Before I Knew You'' and ''Just in Time.'' But he acts with the synthetic sincerity of a soap opera star.
What makes this ''Bells Are Ringing'' so sad is the same blight that tarnished the current revival of ''Annie Get Your Gun'' when it opened with a misused Bernadette Peters. Ms. Prince, like Ms. Peters, is one of those increasingly rare performers whose natural element is musical comedy, and you long to see her in a show that frames her to perfection.
This isn't it. Performing ''The Party's Over'' or ''I'm Going Back'' in a bright voice that glistens with varied shades of feeling, Ms. Prince reminds us how musicals can kidnap an audience's empathy to the point that nothing exists but the song being sung. It is the only such evidence offered in a show that otherwise seems to have no personality at all.
There's nothing like seeing a well-done revival of an old-fashioned musical to make you feel at once elated and depressed - elated by the experience and depressed by how most contemporary offerings fail to measure up.
Last season, a spectacular new production of The Music Man proved far tastier than any original musical-theater fare served on Broadway. On Thursday, another feel-good classic from the '50s, Bells Are Ringing, (*** out of four) returned to New York's theater district, looking and sounding remarkably well-preserved.
Granted, Bells was never a beauty of Music Man's stature. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's quaint lyrics and charmingly convoluted script, focusing on an operator at a phone answering service who falls for one of her clients, don't reach the heights of humor or poignancy that distinguish the best musical comedy. And Jule Styne's melodies, though often fetching, aren't as memorable as those he wrote for Gypsy or Funny Girl.
But an inventive cast and crew enhance the show's strengths - and keep it from seeming dated - by combining vibrant style and affectionate camp. Riccardo Hernandez's fanciful sets, David Woolard's delectable costumes, Donald Holder's dazzling lighting design and Jeff Calhoun's exhilarating choreography figure into this winning formula, all glamorizing and parodying social and showbiz values circa 1956.
That's not to underestimate the contributions of leading lady Faith Prince, who was born to play Bells' feisty, lovelorn heroine, Ella Peterson. Best known for her Tony-winning turn in Guys and Dolls, Prince harkens to a bygone era when female musical-theater stars were silver-throated ingenues, plucky tomboys, unabashed hams or some combination thereof. If her Ella can be heavy on the pork (Freaky's note: ?????), she also is endearingly wistful, and has a lovely way with lyrical ballads such as "Long Before I Knew You" and "The Party's Over."
Prince has a worthy partner in Marc Kudisch, who sings robustly and oozes charm as Jeff Moss, the struggling playwright and playboy who captures Ella's heart. Robert Ari and Martin Moran stand out for amusing depictions of, respectively, a bumbling inspector and a nerdy dentist/composer wannabe. Beth Fowler also merits a nod for her nicely understated portrayal of Ellen's [sic] gullible boss, Sue. As the con man who woos Sue, however, David Garrison threatens to swallow chunks of the scenery whole.
At the preview I attended, Garrison's antics elicited hearty laughter and applause from many. Perhaps they were hungry for more ham. Or maybe they were just happy to be out of the Disney theme park that Broadway has evolved into and back in a place where songs and stories provide the thrills - or at least try to.
Nick at Nite lands a berth on Broadway with the new revival of "Bells Are Ringing." Tina Landau's production pays affectionate homage to the breezy, bright musicals of the 1950s, the kind in which grouchy subway riders burst into song at the suggestion of a smile from the ingenue. A lively, competent staging of a sweet but creaky show, "Bells Are Ringing" will need all the gumption of its energetic heroine to stand out amid the season's competitive musical roster.
Although it boasts an alternately warm and bouncy score with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the 1956 "Bells Are Ringing" has been a tough show to revive due to the singular nature of its original star, Judy Holliday. In Faith Prince, Holliday has at last found a soul sister.
As Ella Peterson, the answering service operator with a yen for meddling in her customers' lives, Prince is suitably quirky and adorable. She may lack Holliday's natural vulnerability, but her expressive face and deft gift for physical comedy add their own seasoning to the show. Her performance is more in the style of Lucille Ball, in fact, than Holliday (the carrot-colored wig, however, is a singularly unattractive one). At times the performance is a little strenuous, but it's effective.
The show's Silly String plot has Ella falling for playboy playwright Jeff Moss (Marc Kudisch), who can't seem to get his first act together until she descends upon his bachelor pad to deliver a playful nudge. Ella, who today would probably set up in business as a life coach, also tugs her other clients toward self-fulfillment: the dentist who wants to be a songwriter (a gleefully zany turn from a persistently airborne Martin Moran), the Brando wannabe who needs to lose the marbles in his mouth (Darren Ritchie). Meanwhile her boss at Susanswerphone (a crisp Beth Fowler) gets involved with a vaguely European fellow named Sandor (David Garrison) who's secretly running a bookie joint.
While we wait -- and wait, truth to tell -- for the carefully assorted kinks in the plot to become unkinked, Comden and Green's book cues a series of nifty songs. Kudisch, a standard-issue, square-jawed romantic lead, boasts a lovely baritone that does full justice to "Just in Time," the best-known standard from the score. Other highlights are the lilting duet "Long Before I Knew You" and Ella's trio of solos: "The Party's Over," the mocking "Is It a Crime?," to which Prince's slightly nasal voice adds a comically plaintive wail, and the rousing closer, "I'm Going Back."
Landau's staging skips along as briskly as possible, given the episodic contortions of the plot; the idea seems to be to evoke a 1950s coloring book come to life. Men in gray flannel suits cavort with girls in capri pants, beat cops and street sweepers have plenty of time on their hands to join in the antic Comden and Greenery spreading cheer across pavement and park.
Jeff Calhoun's choreography draws on standard period styles, as do David C. Woolard's costumes. Both could use a little more personality, as could the clinical set of Riccardo Hernandez, which encases the show in an antiseptic metallic frame. (The whole thing seems to be taking place in that dentist's office.)
"Is it a crime to end each day with a laugh and a smile and a song?" sings Ella, to which the answer, then as now, is a resounding no. But winning over Broadway audiences with those humble attributes isn't the sure shot it once was, and the nostalgia this production enthusiastically retails is hardly a rare commodity these days either. All of which means that busy signals may not be a problem for "Bells Are Ringing," while long-distance service is a distinct long shot.