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Off the Hook


It's a Freudian nightmare. The young playwright is in love with a mysterious girl, who seems to know everything about him (read: parental omniscience). She is an operator at his telephone answering service. But he doesn't know this. When he calls for messages, the young girl answers with the voice of a sympathetic old crone. He calls her "mom." And she mothers him. That relationship is entirely aural. Or should we say "oral."

And what are we to make of the repressive father figure? The inspector! He who inspects, watches over, criticizes. What does he see? He sees sex. He thinks the telephone answering service is a cover-up for a call-girl ring. So he and his assistant set out to catch her (mom) in flagrante delicto with the playwright (her son).

Not only that, but the telephone operator's previous employment was in a brassiere factory! Brassiere, breast, mother.

Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: The Musical! No. It's Bells Are Ringing, by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne, currently enjoying a buoyant revival at Rivertown Rep. Of course, it may be that you can not face the horrifying unconscious passions that lurk beneath the surface of this innocent-seeming entertainment. In that case, you'll probably delude yourself into thinking of it as a lovely series of musical numbers, woven together by a zany mish-mash of a plot.

In order to spare Rivertown a deluge of hate mail from outraged citizens, we'll limit ourselves to the second, more superficial approach.

Basically, Bells Are Ringing is about Ella, who works for Susanswerphone. Ella can't help getting involved with her customers. She is a voice of encouragement, advice and affection. One of her customers is a dentist who always wanted to be a songwriter. Another is an actor, a Marlon Brando wannabe who doesn't realize that his best hope is just to be himself. And finally, there is Jeff Moss, the playwright who is terrified he will not be able to work, now that his writing partner has left him.

Meanwhile, the answering service owner, Sue (Cynthia Owen), has fallen for a fake Austrian classical-record tycoon named Sandor, who is actually a bookmaker. While pretending to invest in the answering service, he is actually setting up an illicit operation where the customers bet in code: 500 albums of Puccini's ninth piccolo concerto, opus 13 equals $500 on the ninth horse in the 13th race at Pimlico. This whimsical world is wrapped around the romance of the scared playwright and his mysterious muse. One day, when his producer is about to fire him, the playwright takes his phone off the hook. Ella goes to his apartment and coaxes him to work. She also straightens out the misguided actor and gets the dentist to submit his songs to a night club. Just a kooky, wonderful little life force, she is.

Of course, kooky wonderful little life forces are not a dime a dozen. Ella is the key to the show. She sings in about half of the 21 numbers, and half of her numbers are solos or duets. In the 1956 original, playing Ella made a star of Judy Holliday. At Rivertown, Owen steps into this demanding role with a confident gusto that is quite irresistible. She can do "brass" as though to the manor born. She soars through a song like an aerialist without a net and inevitably lands with aplomb, whether in upbeat numbers like the wonderful "Mu-cha-cha" (with Greg Bonin) or poignant ballads like "The Party's Over."

Greg Di Leo is effective as Jeff Moss, a role with a perilously high sincerity quotient for such a light play. Di Leo sings and dances with charm and assurance. He is particularly effective in the very funny "You've Got to Do It," a song that not only celebrates but embodies writer's block.

H. G. Stelz as Sandor gives us a likable wag whose musical explanation of his ingenious high-brow betting con, "It's a Simple Little System," is a delight. And Kyle Daigrepont gets a good deal of fun out of Dr. Kitchell, D.D.S., who compulsively writes lyrics to fit any occasion -- an Irving Berlin of the air hose. Other standouts are Carlin Benz and Greg Bonin.

David Hoover's production moves briskly along. It skims over the many burlesque show gags of the plot -- like undercover cops who run around in flagrantly absurd disguises, and palookas from the mob who would be less obvious if they wore sandwich signs that said "Bad Guys" -- and concentrates on the true pleasures to be had: the musical numbers. These are enhanced by Tara Brewer's sprightly choreography, Gloria Fallo's excellent musical direction and Julie Winn's attractive costumes. While Lance Spellerberg's set gracefully accommodates a dozen or so locations.

All in all, a pleasant beginning to the new season.

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