It's difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when the Kirkwood Theatre Guild production of Bells Are Ringing morphs from a creaky museum piece into something fresh and beguiling. Is it during "It's a Simple Little System," where a stage full of bookies position themselves like a church choir and deliver an impressively robust sound? Is it during the bonhomie of "Hello, Hello There," when riders in a New York City subway car suddenly become each other's best friends? Or is it when a wacky songwriter-dentist (Kent Coffel) begins to accompany himself with his air hose?
Whatever the moment, by the time the curtain closes on Act One, the show has succeeded in seducing its audience. And we've yet to hear the socko hit songs ("Just in Time," "The Party's Over") that buoy Act Two. Clearly there is alchemy afoot.
Chances are you haven't seen Bells Are Ringing onstage in a very long time, if ever. The original 1956 Broadway production was a bona fide smash that ran for more than 900 performances. But apparently that wasn't long enough, because now the musical is on Muny executive producer Paul Blake's hit list and hasn't been seen in Forest Park since 1979. Nor has Stages St. Louis ever staged it. It's left to a modest community theater to produce this breezy evening of melody and mirth.
It couldn't have been easy. Bells Are Ringing is a huge undertaking. It has 22 scenes and an almost frightening number of wardrobe changes. (Kudos to costume designer Cherol Bowman Daniels for not calling attention to them.) The opening-night performance began tentatively, as if the actors weren't quite sure they could pull this off. The overture was so lamely played that surely the evening would get off to a more assured start were it to be omitted entirely.
But then something surprising happened: A performance blossomed before the audience's eyes. As Ella Peterson, the busybody switchboard operator at an answering service, Laura Ernst started the evening -- like everyone else -- a wee bit unsure. But as Ella became involved with Jeff Moss, a stymied playwright who is one of Susanswerphone's subscribers, Ernst became imbued with confidence. She proceeded to captivate the audience with a charming and versatile portrayal.
Ernst is at her best in her scenes with Chopper Leifheit, who enacts the writer. Usually Jeff is such a bland character, there's a sense that the primary function of his solo songs is to give Ella time to make yet another costume change. Not here. Leifheit transforms Bells Are Ringing from a star vehicle into a two-character love story. And it works better this way. His rock-solid poise anchors the evening. Director Steve Isom also elicits fun vignettes from, among others, Matt Urban as a marble-mouthed "Method" actor and Mark Abels as a suave bookie.
As choreographed by Ellen Isom, much of the dancing is notable for the manner in which one hardly notices it -- surely a good thing when you're dealing with a stage filled with mostly non-dancers. On the other hand, when showiness is required, it's here. Specialty dancer Jim Kimker gets Act Two off to a svelte start with "Mu-Cha-Cha," a sassy production number that speaks to the 1950s fixation with the cha-cha.
Cha-cha dances, Marlon Brando spoofs. It all harkens back to the era when this show was written. Bells Are Ringing does not merit seeing because it's an undiscovered American classic; it's not. Rather, it is merely a marvelous example of that lost species: the proficient 1950s American musical. The plot is never more than conventional (and sometimes foolish). But Bells Are Ringing was crafted by capable, caring hands. There are bright, hummable tunes by Jule Styne, written long before he composed the scores for Gypsy and Funny Girl, and there's a clever book and lyrics by the always-deft Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Back in 1956 Bells Are Ringing had but one purpose: to entertain. All these decades later, it still does.