`Bells are Ringing’

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Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 13, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York: `King Hedley II’ & `Bells’

Fraught with melodramatic situations, metaphysical

implications, and mystical intimations August Wilson’s new play

"King

Hedley II" is a frustrating mix of symbolism and realism. It is,

at the same time, a powerful and memorable theatrical experience.

The play is set in the mid-1980s in the economically anemic black

ghetto Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here in the backyard

of his family’s home, ex-convict (seven years for murder two) King

Hedley (a shaven-headed Brian Stokes Mitchell) is hatching up a

get-some-quick-cash

scheme. This time to sell stolen refrigerators (he didn’t steal them,

just selling them) with Mister (Monte Russell), his brother-in-law

and partner. King’s desperation to get cash is partly motivated by

his need to provide for his unhappy and pregnant wife Tonya (Viola

Davis), but more by his gnawing need to elevate himself out of the

hopelessness of his despairing environment. Convincing themselves

that a little armed-robbery of a local jewelry store on the side will

not hurt, King and Mister hope to use the money to open their own

small business, a video store.

Casting another shadow upon King’s real agonies and unrealistic

expectations

is his ex-singer mother Ruby (Leslie Uggams), a survivor of unstable

and unscrupulous men whose current, or rather recurrent, old flame

and professional swindler Elmore (Charles Brown), is back to cause

chaos in her life. That he also, in a fit of pique, is pressed to

expose some ugly truths about Ruby’s past and King’s legitimacy adds

more tension and grounds for violence into the lives of this

dysfunctional

family. Thrown into the sordid reality is the nut-case of a neighbor

Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a hallucinating,

apocalypse-prophetizing

old gent who, as the plot churns toward its tragic end, recites

stretches

of the Old Testament to explain the plight and the turbulent legacy

of the black race.

The play, however, under Marion McClinton’s overly pedantic direction,

spirals downward and somewhat tediously over three hours. An

unsatisfactory

and hard-to-swallow conclusion doesn’t help. If the resolution of

the play seems unworthy of its writer and, indeed, of the vibrant

characters who kept us in their thrall, the dialogue always resonates

with persuasive expressive lyricism. It reaches a climax in Tonya’s

soliloquy (which helped win Davis the Tony Award) in which she

heartbreakingly

decries the future and the fate of children giving birth to children.

Mitchell gives a towering and mesmerizing performance as the raging,

confounded and ultimately helpless King Hedley. Leslie Uggams is

particularly

moving as the mother whose secrets are as guarded as her affections.

Both Brown, as the manipulative and conniving Elmore, and Henderson

as the ranting neighbor, offer unforgettable portraits of the

proverbial

archetypal schemer and dreamer. As part of Wilson’s canon

("Jitney,"

"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," "Fences," "Joe

Turner’s

Come and Gone," "The Piano Lesson," "Two Trains

Running,"

"Seven Guitars") that explores the heritage and experience

of African American decade by decade over the 20th century, "King

Hedley II," set in the 1980s, may be the most disheartening. But

it also resonates with the force and the focus of a master dramatist.

Three stars: You won’t be disappointed.

— Simon Saltzman

King Hedley, Virginia Theater, 245 West 52nd Street, New

York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page
`Bells are Ringing’

It was 1956 when Judy Holliday became the toast of

Broadway

in "Bells are Ringing," the silly and sweet musical

collaboration

of Jule Styne (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book and

lyrics). Forty-five years later, Broadway has a worthy successor to

Holliday in Faith Prince, a performer whose musical comedy skills

provide the star-generating sparkle that this show sorely needs. Not

to unkindly discredit the once quaint but now irretrievably creaky

vehicle, there is good reason to have waited so long to find the right

performer who could blow some of the cobwebs off the inane plot. As

Ella Peterson, the nosy but nice telephone service operator at

"Susanswerphone,"

who feels it is her calling to meddle in the lives of clients she

never sees, carrot-topped Prince is totally right and totally

disarming.

She careens fearlessly through the plot’s holes and occasional highs

with a bravura energy and beguiling charm not seen since Lucille

Ball’s

"I Love Lucy" days.

Ella falls sight unseen for Jeff Moss (Marc Kudisch), a handsome

bachelor

playwright who is suffering with writer’s block, and less so from

the bevy of pretty girls who party through his playboy penthouse.

She then breaks the number one rule of her boss Sue (Beth Fowler)

when, without disclosing her identity, she makes it her mission to

get Jeff back to writing. Although her mission is as motherly as it

is romantic, Ella doesn’t let it distract her from helping other needy

clients toward their life’s goals: there’s mumbling actor (Darren

Ritchie) fixated with Marlon Brando, and a dentist (Martin Moran)

with a drill and a song to go with it. Just as Ella is exposed in

time for the finale, so is Susan’s love interest, Sandor (David

Garrison),

a bookie posing as a continental record producer. None of this matters

as much as our response to director Tina Landau’s ultra light touch,

Jeff Calhoun’s period choreography (fearlessly outre), the brightness

of David C. Wollard’s ’50s costuming, and the early TV studio look

of the settings (with wonderful vintage films projected during the

overture) designed by Riccardo Hernandez.

But how can one complain when one gets to hear Prince bring her own

persuasive style to the forever marvelous ballads "The Party’s

Over," the "Long Before I knew You," and bring a deft

comedic touch to "Is it a Crime," "Drop That Name,"

and the show-stopping finale, "I’m Going Back to the Bonjour

Tristesse

Brassiere Factory." Baritone Kudisch (who was robbed of a

well-deserved

Tony nomination) delivers the show’s most popular song, "Just

in Time," in full throttle. "Bells are Ringing" may not

be a great American musical, but song for song and joke for joke and

Prince for Kudisch it should, at least, bring a smile to your face.

That could be enough to make bells ring for you. Two stars: Maybe you should have come.

— Simon Saltzman

Bells are Ringing, Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45th Street.

Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. $50 to $85.

Top Of Page
Ticket Numbers

Unless noted, reservations can be made through ele-Charge

at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200 .

For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,

and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing

arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS

same-day,

half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47) is open daily,

3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for

Wednesday

and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday matinees.

The lower Manhattan booth, on the Mezzanine at 2 World Trade Center,

is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday from 11

a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Matinee tickets are sold at this location on the

day prior to performance. Cash or travelers’ checks only; no credit

cards. Visit TKTS at: www.tdf.org.


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