The recent production by Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology of "Bells Are Ringing" harkened back to a lighthearted era of polka dots and party lines, an uplifting show ending a tense week of terrorism alerts, duct tape and plastic sheeting.
Written in 1956 by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with music by Jule Styne, the show is a little-known classic of American musical theater and a challenge for a high school to perform. (A 2001 Broadway revival starred Faith Prince.)
"Bells" opens with a cutesy commercial sequence and then introduces the audience to Ella Peterson, an incorrigible do-gooder with the proverbial heart of gold. Ella is employed by an answering service that caters to a varied clientele of working New Yorkers, and she just cannot help but become involved in the lives of her customers. Between matchmaking and mustard plasters, Ella raises suspicion in the mind of a goofy gumshoe, and "I Love Lucy"-like antics ensue.
The cast of "Bells" had a formidable task. To make a corny script and predictable musical numbers work, the actors had to make their characters larger than life. Emily Timberlake played the lead role of Ella with a charming combination of naivete and nosiness, adding a touch of fun to each number and scene.
As Jeff, her love interest, Will Gatlin portrayed a personable playwright (and procrastinator) with confidence and charisma.
The hilarious Sam Willmott kept the audience in stitches, as a dentist who aspires to be a songwriter. Willmott doubled as set designer, serving up a city full of apartments and street corners, nightclubs and subway cars.
Lighting by Tina Lee and Alice Jackson was basic, with some late cues and slow fades, but did what the show required. The actors were equipped with body microphones, but they were used only during musical numbers. Although the microphones amplified the sound significantly, some performers relied on them too much.
Kitschy and fun, "Bells Are Ringing" was a perfect fit for Valentine's Day, leaving the audience with a happy ending and a sweet taste in their mouths.
Robinson Secondary School
People were laughing and hands were clapping as Thomas Jefferson drama students sang and danced their way through the classic 1950s musical, "Bells Are Ringing." The rarely performed yet adorable show centers on a telephone answering service and the owner's cousin, Ella Peterson. Ella's desire to help people on the subscriber list leads her toward brushes with the law and with love.
Strong leads headed this enormous cast.
As Ella, Emily Timberlake was perfectly perky and endearing, her lovely voice well suited for a Broadway musical. Timberlake had great chemistry with her co-star, Will Gatlin, who played Jeff Moss, a playwright with writer's block and the man of Ella's dreams.
Other characters also shone. Zach Fithian and Mike Mott were hilarious as bumbling Inspector Barnes and his smarter but submissive assistant, Francis.
Courtney Soderberg, as answering service owner Sue, and Forrest Waller as her shady bookie boyfriend, Sandor, delivered an amusing duet, "Salzburg," in which Sue pestered an exasperated Sandor to tell her about her dream town when all he wanted to do was escape the mob.
By far the funniest moments came when Dr. Kitchell (Sam Willmott), a dentist who had always wanted to be a songwriter, appeared. Willmott kept the audience in stitches, his presence adding comic energy to all around him.
The cast of more than 50 students worked together exceptionally well, each member finding and maintaining a distinct character through the show. The hard work paid off in group numbers such as "Hello, Hello There," set on a crowded subway car. Almost every body in the car bounced and swayed with the movement of the train, even during the group choreography, no small feat for half a hundred to do simultaneously.
Some singers were difficult to hear because of sound problems and a loud orchestra.
Overall, Jefferson's cast and crew put on an enthusiastic and enjoyable performance.
St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School