Updated: Jun 20, 2020
..."one of the most delightful musicals of the 20th century!"
"She Loves Me," now playing at Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre through October 14th, and directed by Branda Lock, is a euphoric uplifting romantic comedy with a soaring, melodic score and two lovable lead performances. Book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, it is considered one of the most delightful musicals of the 20th century with its winsome modern humor, and is listed as #21 in the top 100 musicals of all time with its sumptuous European nuances.
First seen on Broadway in 1963, then directed by Harold Prince, "She Loves Me" is based on "The Shop Around the Corner," Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 screen version of "Parfumerie," a Miklós Laszló stage comedy that was also later filmed as "In the Good Old Summertime" (a great movie!), and later, as the popular "You've Got Mail," starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It was revived again in 2016, becoming the first Broadway show ever to be live-streamed.
The setting is Budapest, a time capsule of a pre-war Bourgeois society, and most of the cast characters are going under resoundingly Hungarian names. The presence of World War I and II in Europe caused an increase in what was called the “lonely-hearts ads,” as soldiers sought out companions. Additionally, many women were widowed and an increased number of them advertised not only for husbands, but simply for dates, which would have been viewed as very risqué in the early part of the century.
The opening scene (beautifully realized by Designer Tristan Griffin) treats us to a lovely summer day in the year 1934, where we see a sophisticated shop parade as the employees of Maraczek's Parfumerie arrive at work, and greet each other with tuneful appreciation ("Good Morning, Good Day") before somberly heading inside to do their toil, bowing and scraping before the fuss-budget female clientele. Ageing parfumier Mr. Maraczek (a gruff sounding, but secretly genteel Michael Heimos), arrives to open the store, and it is soon full of "Sounds While Selling." There’s a lot of old-world atmosphere and charm on display, as Director Lock intuitively finds the heart of the show, with every element in perfect balance.
Working at the shop is Ladislav Sipos (Terry Delegeane), a fretful middle-aged salesman with a family; teenage delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (Logan Rice); thirty-something Ilona Ritter (Kristen Daniels), who is having an affair with suave Steven Kodaly (Jordan Segal), one of the top salesmen; and Georg Nowack , the shy assistant manager who utterly charms from his first entrance. Georg has just received his latest "Dear Friend" letter, and he shares today's romantic billet-doux with Sipos, a good friend. Maraczek overhears and advises Georg to get married, recalling his bachelor days in the nostalgic "Days Gone By." Amalia Balash soon comes by looking for a job, and somehow manages to sales-talk her way into it with Mr. Maraczek, who needs to push a big supply of cigarette boxes out the door.
The plot is basically a clockwork farce: Amalia and Georg are in love - just not with each other. In fact, you could say that in their case, it was loathe at first sight! He thinks she’s stuck up, and she thinks he’s arrogant and mean. By day, they disagree about things and snipe at each other, but at night the love-starved pair goes home and engages in passionate romances-by-mail through their dating service. What neither realizes is that the love letters that they've been writing have in fact been written to each other. But love is always complicated, right?
As summer turns into autumn and then into the early days of winter, tensions grow in the shop: Ilona and Kodaly are now enemies instead of lovers (Mr. Kodaly is somewhat of a player with the ladies), and Mr. Maraczek has become very suspicious of Georg. But Georg is oblivious and continues to find solace in his anonymous romantic pen pal, still unsuspecting that his correspondent is none other than Amalia. Their duet, "Three Letters," is soulful and heartfelt . The very smart, but eccentric Sipos explains to Arpad that they argue because they unknowingly like each other very much.
Christmas approaches, and as the staff of “Maraczeks” deal with demanding customers and complicated inter-personnel relationships, it soon becomes obvious to the audience that they’re actually in love without realizing it. When Amalia and her “Friend” finally arranges a meeting at the Cafe Impériale, and Georg realizes that his pen-pal is actually Amalia, he does not reveal his identity immediately. But inevitably, Amalia finally discovers the truth and they rejoice in their love for each other at the story’s sweet conclusion, celebrating some of the most iconic songs in the musical theatre canon ("Will He Like Me?"). The bedroom scene featuring “Vanilla Ice Cream” when Georg comes to visit Amalia is a feast for the senses that is not to be missed! And one of the best numbers of the night is Georg’s “She Loves Me,” where his character becomes an animated bundle of raw emotion.
Emily Rose Lezin as Amalia Balash and Aric Martin as Georg Nowak throw themselves into the risible scenes as the central duo of the show, both having distinguished backgrounds, stage presence, fabulous voices and a convincing chemistry. Nowak is a graduate of The Juilliard School of Drama and Ms. Lezin has a Masters in Vocal Performance from Mannes College of Music in NYC. Singing with clarity and a flawless five-star delivery, this is classic musical theatre done right.
But the show also nicely incorporates its supporting characters into the milieu, with many getting some of the screenplay's best lines. Contributing performances by Jordan Segal (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) as the unctuous rascal of the piece, for example, finds his inner cad and slays both of his tunes, the sexy “Ilona” and his hilarious exit song, “Grand Knowing You.” The ever-adorable Logan Rice (“Little Shop of Horrors”/ ”Oliver”) shines as Arpad, the epitome of a young, spry delivery boy who aspires to greater things. And Terry Delegeane (“Perspective”) is outstanding as the unassuming, timorous senior clerk, Ladislav Sipo, wise and intuitive, who ultimately saves the day. All three possess uncanny vocal power.
Kristen Daniels (“Hairspray,” Laguna Playhouse) is hilariously appealing as co-worker Ilona Ritter, and adds an embellishing backstory to the action of the main characters with her zany Lucille Ball-like performance. Her fantastic belt, comedic girly-girl style and pitch-perfect vocals, especially during one of the most anticipated songs, “A Trip to the Library,” bedazzles the audience with laugh-out-loud empathy and firmly cements her as an aerosaltant you definitely want to see again!
Ensemble numbers such as “Sounds Like Selling,” “ Goodbye Georg,” “ A Romantic Atmosphere,” and the escalating pandemonium of “Twelve Days to Christmas” are particularly fun, featuring Michael Marchak’s (“Pacific Overtures,” Nominated Best Choreography) well-staged choreography, many times with multiple action taking place. A fabulous group of perfectly picked ensemble members round out a professional cast of actors, and includes Taylor McClain, Danielle Morris, Audrey Pennington, Jenna Stocks, Devin Dominguez and Esteban Hurtado.
Joel D. Castro is cast as an ensemble member, but has one strong scene playing Mr. Keller, the private detective, and is also one to remember. Plus, Head Waiter Daniel Koh, an unexpected talent in his prim and proper costume, also is the show’s Musical Director, along with Assistant Music Director Carson Schutze. Mr. Koh ends up being comedy relief and one of the focal points of the restaurant scene. Then there’s Busboy Jenna Stocks, an amazing dancer, who is a sight to behold as she effortlessly negotiates the clever choreography of Michael Marchak. Mirai Booth-Ong understudies both the Ilana and Amalia roles, as well as ensemble, and was last seen in “Seussical!” at the MWT.
Produced by Bouket Fingerhut, Sound Design is by Doug Mattingly (previously “Boeing Boeing” at the MWT). MarLee Candell (“An Evening of Christopher Durang”) brings her experienced hand to beautiful period costumes, helping to recreate the magic of another time and place. And Lighting magic is by Bruce Starrett (“Major Barbara,” Infinite Jest Theatre).
This show is Highly Recommended! It may even be the best show I've seen this year. Show times are set at 8pm, Friday and Saturday evenings and a 2pm matinee on Sundays. Get your tickets here: https://www.morgan-wixson.org/she-loves-me
The Show Report