A show of hands please for those of you who are sick of me waxing poetic about Encores! at New York City Center. You, yes you there in the back, may want to lower that hand and use it to delete this now.
Last night I attended the dress rehearsal of Bells Are Ringing, the opening show of the 18th season of Encores! Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall (The Pajama Game, Wonderful Town, etc.) this production soars. Featuring Kelli O’Hara, Judy Kaye, Dylan Baker, and Bobby Cannavale, this staged concert version of Comden and Green and Julie Styne is the purest of incarnations. The rather straightforward book involves an answering service receptionist, Ella (O’Hara) and her good nature meddling into the subscriber’s lives. There is a romantic plot line as well, and a criminal sub plot. The songs are delightful (Just In Time, The Party’s Over) and there are simply insufficient superlatives for the full orchestra. As in all Encores! productions, the orchestra is center stage and directed by Rob Berman. To be able to see and hear a musical overture? Well, I am at a loss for words.
The dance numbers throughout are simply delicious. I am not entirely sure which, if not all, of the numbers were the original Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse creations. Although, the Second Act number; Mu-Cha-Cha simply screamed Fosse. The subway car number; Hello, Hello There! is brilliant in its seemingly simple execution. It is actually quite complicated, but so well choreographed as to seem organic. I’m not sure there is a higher standard for choreography than that. Ms. Marshall is quite kind to Ms O’Hara, a non-dancer, the utmost respect is due for directors who actually protect their actors.
Ella is the center of the show, and it takes a very charismatic actress to pull that off. Ms. O’Hara does so without breaking a sweat. She is perhaps one of the best theatrical singers around today. Acting (very well) while singing (very well) is more rare than you would think. If there is any tiny flaw in Ms. O’Hara’s interpretation of Ella it is her own aristocratic air. Given more rehearsal time, I’ve no doubt she could lose that entirely and embrace the more vulnerable and slightly common character of Ella. There were two moments that proved this theory beyond a doubt. Ms O’Hara flubbed her lines on two different occasions resulting in a glimpse of a different facade. The first time is definitely worth specifying as the mistake was hysterical. She instructed the struggling playwright to sit at his computer and write. In 1956. The audience roared, and she was vulnerable and devoid of grace for a moment. I also think she is not particularly well served by the Judy Holliday wig. It is hard enough to shake the image of the incomparable Ms. Holliday while watching this show.
What is so fabulous about Encores! is it proves that it is possible to produce wonderful original (note: not staged movies) musical theatre, with amazing talent (on and off stage) and without gimmicks of any sort. There is an element of “let’s put on a show in the barn” to it, that for me, keeps hope alive.
While this was a dress and that of a concert version, the cast was 95% off book for the entire (over) two hour show. It is a testament to the vision and artistic integrity of Encores! that such a polished production comes out of the most abbreviated of rehearsal time. This production is so far along that it would take very little to move it to Broadway, and for all our sakes I do hope that happens.