Updated: Jun 20
Sometimes a Little Vanilla Ice Cream is Sweet Deliverance.
Such is the discovery of Amalia and Georg, who work as sales clerks in a luxury retail perfume shop, and unfortunately, aren’t exactly the best of friends. They do have something in common, however. They are, unbeknownst to them, both secret pen pals in a lonely hearts club.
Sound familiar? It should.
That youthful, infatuating theme has been the crux of many Hollywood and Broadway productions, culminating in one of the most endearing musicals of all time – "She Loves Me." The proof is at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, where this musical, playing now in full confectionery charm through February 22nd to teeming houses, has finally received the rapturous revival of its fans' dreams, and where surely new fans will be made by the legion.
An intimate work with nothing on its sophisticated mind other than romance, "She Loves Me" is no less an anomaly today than it was 57 years ago. Given how the world has changed since then, audiences may be hungrier than ever for a show such as this, dedicated solely to a melodic evening of sheer enchantment and escape.
That escape, however, is to a civilization that really doesn't exist anymore – the Mitteleuropa of the mid-1930's. Based on the same Hungarian play that inspired Ernst Lubitsch's Hollywood comedy, "The Shop Around the Corner," the musical is about two lovelorn clerks in a Budapest parfumerie...Georg Nowack (Brian Vaughn) and Amalia Balash (Erin Mackey), perpetually bickering colleagues by day, unwitting, passionate pen pals by night, brought together pseudonymously by a lonely hearts' classified. Inevitably, Georg and Amalia must realize the truth about each other and their own feelings, but not before there are a few farcical mix-ups, sad misunderstandings and hard-won journeys to self-knowledge.
And in the process of that revealing truth, the disarming music within them is the manifestation of irrepressible emotions that we all experience. At their most ecstatic, they take the form of bravura solos: Amalia’s exemplary “No More Candy,” “Will He Like Me?” and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” where she literally owns the stage as her stream of consciousness carries her out of one love affair and into another, all the while spanning at least that many vocal registers and moods.
Her counterpart, Mr. Vaughn, a handsome, light-footed leading man with a strong voice and a sweet, honorable, earnest air, reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, shines bright in the title song, “She Loves Me,” channeling a nimble Gene Kelly in a leapfrogging explosion of joy, and setting the house ablaze in Act II. His other angst-ridden solo, “Tonight at Eight,” oozes with trepidation, butterflies, and then incredulous triumph that makes it all his own.
But this musical is remarkably generous to all its performers. A half-dozen supporting characters are given show stoppers, and each performer delivers with a flourish. This is especially true of Marlene Martinez’ bouncy brunette, Ilona Ritter, a protofeminist and the parfumerie's most unlucky woman in love. With piquant charm, the love-singed Ilona, who is having a hushed affair with the caddish Kodaly, almost steals the show with two solo numbers that leave audiences with their mouths open in amazement: the fervently belted “I Resolve,” and the animated, risible and blazingly fast, “A Trip to the Library.” Ilona’s subplot, finding the man of her dreams, is one of the most satisfying conclusions in the show.
As her smarmy suitor, Sam Ludwig’s Kodaly ("Grand Knowing You") is narcissistic sleaze in flight, yet a song-and-dance man nonpareil. He preens, she melts, and when they make music together, they rumba like the stars of a Copacabana floor show. The affable Mr. Henerson’s Sipos (“Perspective”), the clerk who survives by keeping his head down, is also total perfection in song and action, as is Mr. Abilez’ Arpad, the delivery boy with big dreams of success (“Try Me”).
The evening's one elaborate production number, a campy wrong-step fandango for illicit lovers titled "A Romantic Atmosphere," receives a riotous performance from Danny Scheie as a pompous headwaiter and from sprightly Jonathan Kim as the wayward busboy who ignites Jaclyn Miller’s impressively dizzy choreography (“Hairspray,” “Twelfth Night”). I have seen the scene numerous times, all slightly different in other productions, but I can say most assuredly that I have never enjoyed it more.
Considering Joe Masteroff's pre-WWII book, set in 1934 Budapest with about a million and a half population, Hungarian is not spoken in the play. In fact, in this third adaptation of “She Loves Me,” pure American accents rule. It could actually be set in a small town anywhere, giving it widespread appeal, but it really is the soaring score by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) that mostly makes the piece endure, which has almost as much music as an operetta, all of it written in a lilting style that respects the story's environment and setting. Written by the authors of “Fiddler on the Roof,” this musical version has delighted audiences since its 1963 Broadway premier, with its paradigmatic songs and euphoric romance.
And when embodied by a cast as expertly attuned as this one, a cast that is gifted and idiosyncratic enough to ward off any saccharine clichés, you know you have a winner. One which includes a winning Sam Ludwig as Steven Kodaly, Matthew Henerson as Ladislov Sipos, Ricky Abilez as Arpad Laszlo, and a scrumptious Marlene Martinez as Ilona Ritter, swimming in a deeply satisfying sweetness usually lacking in brassier shows. In fact, the cheerful seamlessness of “She Loves Me” defies deconstruction and is remarkably free of any subtexts or political statements like many other vintage musicals.
As Amalia trills her delight in a song that flies toward heaven on ascending high notes, audiences for Director David Ivers’ production are likely to know exactly how she feels. That’s partly because of the director, and partly due to the tantalizingly delightful dynamism of Ms. Mackey, an actress whose joyful soprano is a conduit for instant empathy.
But it’s also because, from the moment the show begins with a salutation to the typical working day by the employees of Maraczek’s perfume shop, owned by Gregory North’s Mr. Maraczek (SCR – “The Fantasticks,” McCoy Rigby – “Grumpy Old Men, The Musical”), “She Loves Me” is a sustained reminder of the pleasures of exalted ordinariness. This tasty tale of love lost and found at the workplace really is indeed the great vanilla ice cream musical.
That doesn’t mean the show is simple. It succeeds in making you feel personally engaged by every one of its principal characters, while convincing you that the most natural way to get to know people is through the medium of song.
For “She Loves Me” only occasionally stops to deliver a big, self-contained production number. Instead, song runs through it like an underground stream that keeps bubbling to the surface. It sets the rhythms of salesmanship for Mr. Maraczek’s staff, from the courtly opening pitch to the farewell sung in impeccable harmony to each departing customer: “Thank you, madam, please call again. Do call again, madam.”
But harmony is not all-pervasive. This is a place of business, after all, inhabited by an assortment of personalities that inevitably clash. And when Mr. Maraczek begins carping nastily at his trusted second-in-command, Georg, it compounds his ability to get along with Amalia too, making her think his stress is a personal grudge against her.
Most important to the tone of the show, all of the characters register as the sort of common-run urbanites you would meet on any street, in any town. Each is an apotheosis of the norm — just as James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan were in the Lubitsch film, and more recently, as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were in Nora Ephron’s updated 1998 movie variation, "You've Got Mail."
Mr. Vaughn (Artistic Director – Utah Shakespeare Festival/”Les Misérables,” “Camelot”) and Ms. Mackey (Broadway: “In Transit,” “Amazing Grace”) give good friction. Both their characters are convincingly willful, ambitious and, as it happens, romantic in a literary way.
It makes perfect sense when we learn (before they do) that they have been corresponding with each other anonymously, under the rubric “Dear Friend,” through the precursor of today’s online dating service.
As for the technical wizards — starting with the outsize fold-out Fabergé egg that is Maraczek’s Parfumerie, the set by Emmy Award nominated Jo Winiarski is a sumptuous eyeful, a miniature Art Nouveau wonderland graced by this designer's vivid, painterly details and vast experience. Even a kiosk flower shop window looks like a Kirchner canvas.
Alex Jaeger’s lavish costumes are a throwback to a mid-1930's M-G-M notion of the cosmopolitan, while Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting often adds a wintry violet glow that suggests both an Eastern Europe twilight and the twilight of an era. Jeff Polunas’ sound design, Gregg Coffin’s music direction and Jamie A. Tucker’s stage management — these elements combine to create an enhanced, shining reality that finds the daydream in daily existence.
It’s a world where even office antagonisms and anxiety can find an up-tempo synchronicity. And for those moments when you sense a song in your heart, there’s always a first-class orchestra right around the corner, conducted by Tom Griep, conveniently backstage to help you express yourself in a style that lives up to your bliss. The eminently talented musicians in that group include Alby Potts, Robert Peterson, Elizabeth Brown, Jay Mason, Dustin McKinney, Louis Allee and Tim Christensen.
“She Loves Me,” directed by SCR Artistic Director David Ivers, playing January 25th through February 22nd at South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, currently in their 56th season, and presented on the Segerstrom Stage. For ticket information, performance dates and reservations, please inquire at https://www.scr.org/tickets
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Jordan Kubat