Updated: Jun 12
It’s not just ice cream, it’s little shivers of love.
For lush musical-comedy romanticism, it's hard to beat the timeless musical, “She Loves Me.” Factoring in lonely hearts club connections, a measure of calculated adultery, a fair amount of nasty sparring, and even a suicide attempt, this is indubitably a thoroughly adult musical that also happens to be family-friendly — an unusual combination, especially in today’s times.
The melodies of this 1963 show by Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick sounded as sweet and richly evocative as ever in Director Richard Israel’s pleasurable awakening of the Broadway hit, finishing up their month-long run in today’s performance. The show ran from February 7th through March 8th at the Horton Grand Theatre, and was produced by San Diego Musical Theatre.
The 14-piece orchestra, along with the cast led by Allison Spratt Pearce (“Curtains,” “Good Vibrations”), Joshua David Cavanaugh (“Plaid Tidings,” “Treasure Island”) and Sami Nye (“All Shook Up,” “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Musical”), proves to be scrupulous custodians of the luscious score, and none of them more polished than Ms. Pearce.
It would be hard to find an inner tussle between dutifulness and passion with more joyous wit than in this confectionery delight in which Amalia keeps being sidetracked by involuntary thoughts of the newly attractive Georg, in the guise of Mr. Cavanaugh, from the soulful letter she is writing to “Dear Friend.” Ms. Pearce seems to negotiate the emotional passage from hostility to infatuation with brilliant, chrysalis-bursting joy and self-possession. Her Amalia Balash is a worthy successor to the role's originator, Barbara Cook — and that includes her skill at hitting that gorgeous, high B-flat in the song "Vanilla Ice Cream."
"She Loves Me" ran on Broadway for nine months in 1963 and '64, and then didn't appear again for another 30 years where it had a brief revival in 1993. And because of its abundant wit and Old World warmth — it's based on Miklos Laszlo's play "Parfumerie," which also was the basis for the 1940 James Stewart movie "The Shop Around the Corner," the 1949 Judy Garland and Van Johnson musical “In the Good Old Summertime,” and in the 1998 Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan film, “You’ve Got Mail" — the show has endured in discerning musical-comedy-loving hearts, in the memories of everyone who's reveled in the seductive chords of Bock and Harnick's "I Don't Know His Name" or "Will He Like Me?" or "Dear Friend" or that effervescent title song, sung by the show's hero, Georg, all aglow in the realization of his brightening romantic future.
The show is so expertly crafted that the interlocking stories of the seven employees at Maraczek's Parfumerie come together with ease, bubbling with chemistry and personality. And if you don't recognize the imaginative achievement here, the exceptionally graceful integration of plot and song, not to mention the impressively equitable level of attention devoted to each of the characters' stories, well, what can I say? For the rest of us, we'll always have Budapest.
That's where "She Loves Me" takes place — in the 1930s (albeit in a very Americanized style), and mostly in the perfume shop of Mr. Maraczek (Jeffrey Arnold Wolf – Natl Tour: “Titanic;” HBO: “Crashing”), an emporium that opens and inverts like a jewel box in set designer Mike Buckley's dazzling rendering of it on stage.
Amalia and the chief sales clerk, Georg Nowack, take a humorously instant dislike to one other, constantly bumping heads and sparring while on the job without common ground. So lonely are these two that both happen to be members of the same lonely-hearts club, unawares. But little do they know that the anonymous romantic pen pals they have both been rapturously falling for happen to be each other.
Some exuberant major performers, all of consummate talent, support this central pair, and all are generously given their own shining moments; Mr. Blankenhorn (“West Side Story,” “The Producers”), portraying Arpad, the shop's eager-beaver delivery boy, is splendidly distingué in the winningly self-promotional "Try Me." Steven Freitas'(“The Full Monty,” “Miracle on 34th Street”) portrayal of the parfumerie's mild-mannered sad sack, Ladislav Sipos, who always knows his place, is persuasive, too, particularly when he gets to lay out his self-abnegating credo, in "Perspective."
And most enjoyably, Ms. Nye takes the Ilona Ritter shopgirl to the next level. Ilona is the kind of girl who, too quickly falls for the likes of a two-timing co-worker like Steven Kodaly (David Šášik in an incredible performance).
In the clever, heart-melting "A Trip to the Library,” Ms. Nye’s pretty blonde Ilona (who has hitherto been lothario-fodder) starts off in mock-bolero fashion, telling us exactly how her life has been changed since she ventured into that unfamiliar bookish venue and met a “slightly bespectacled”' optometrist: “I have to admit in the back of my mind I was praying he wouldn’t get fresh…and all of the while I was wondering why an illiterate girl should attract him. Then all of a sudden he said that I couldn’t go wrong with the way of all flesh…which of course is a novel but I didn't know or I certainly wouldn’t have smacked him.”
Mr. Šášik’s (“Mama Mia,” “Bonnie & Clyde”) Kodaly is the shop ladies’ man. He knows he is sexy, but is both unscrupulous and irresistibly charismatic in his appeal to women. He thinks nothing of beguiling his co-worker Ilona, and then without a second thought, dumping her out in the cold. But decidedly, when Mr. Šášik decides to break out those ingratiating moves, it’s also time to break out the heart medication.
Case in point, the impassioned rumba danced by Mr. Šášik and Ms. Nye (in which Ilona literally winds up in a Christmas garland), seduces, entices and entrances in sizzling delectation. But as luck would have it, Ilona rightly resolves her romantic dilemma shortly thereafter through a chance literary meeting with a polished, bespectacled professional, finally sealing her own future happiness. Now, what about those other two book worms?
Dylan Pass (Natl Tour: “Evita, “Cabaret”) as the smarmy Headwaiter in the restaurant scene toward the end of Act One is outrageously funny, and he and his clumsy busboy Wyatt Rhinehart (“Spring Awakening,” “Beauty and the Beast”) lead a stage full of ensemble diners in one of the wackiest choreographed escapades ever, “A Romantic Atmosphere.” After numerous times seeing this segment in the show at other venues, I can safely say, this one holds the title. A number very uniquely portrayed with split-second timing, virtual perfection in action, animation and style, producing elation and big, big grins. Bravo!
Mr. Wolf’s Maraczek provides the gravitas that keeps the plot solid and adopts a parental attitude towards his employees, becoming a boilermaker of tensions when he suspects that Georg is having an affair with his wife. She is having an affair, but with Steven Kodaly.
The resulting resignation of Georg, coated in daunted sympathy, created much affinity with the audience, especially upon hearing the salesclerks singing “Goodbye, Georg.” Mr. Wolf’s inspirative but wistful first act number, “Days Gone By,” in short order gave us much information into Maraczek’s frame of mind and disconsolate days. That stress over his marital troubles lands Maraczek in the hospital.
The celebrated score contains a few musical nods to the show's Hungarian setting, particularly the violin solo that kicks off the overture, and a few elements of Hungarian dance from Sipos, but is otherwise straight from the Broadway musical playbook. While the show's most famous numbers are performed almost back-to-back in the second act — Amalia's "Vanilla Ice Cream" and the title song, “She Loves Me,” sung by Georg when Amalia obliquely makes known her true feelings for him — even the less familiar songs are winners.
Amalia and Georg have a large percentage of the best material, including her aching "Will He Like Me?" and his "Tonight at Eight," two of the most perceptive songs about nervous anticipation in the canon.
But the acidic parting shot, "Grand Knowing You," another showpiece gem from Mr. Šášik’s Kodaly, and a merry, regaling montage number late in the second act ("Twelve Days to Christmas") must both be counted among the best in the composition.
In fact, nothing can pull this production down from the theatrical stratosphere. “She Loves Me” is transporting and thoroughly a heartwarming narrative, the kind of musical that even those with the hardest of hearts would find impossible not to love.
Additional cast includes as Customers: Cassie Bleher (understudy for Amalia), Alexa Querin, Morgan Carberry (understudy for Ilona); Mr. Keller: Christopher Szabo; Ensemble cast includes Evan Borboa (understudy for Headwaiter), Chase Fischer, Aaron Jerry Skipper (understudy for Arpad); Dylan Pass (understudy for Kodaly/Sipos).
Orchestra includes Billy Edwall, Lisa Cherry, Nico Hueso, Patty McCormick, Andrew Orbison, Steve Withers, Michelle Gray, Sharon Taylor, Mark Margolies, Amy Kalal, Ariana Warren, Tim Glaude and Mike Dooley. Musical Director/Conductor is Don Le Master.
“She Loves Me,” Directed by Richard Israel, Choreography by Lauren Haughton, Scenic Design by Mike Buckley, Costumes by Janet Pitcher, Sound Design by Jon Fredette, Lighting Design by Michelle Miles, Props by Heather Longfellow, Hair & Wig Design by Peter Herman, Technical Director by Steve Longfellow and Production Stage Manager by Hannah May. Be sure and catch the San Diego Musical Theatre’s next production of “Rent,” playing from April 17th through May 3rd.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report