Highly Recommended: It’s love at first sight with Marriott’s glorious ‘She Loves Me’
Perfection on every count. That is the one and only way to describe Marriott Theatre’s wholly enchanting revival of “She Loves Me,” that gem of a musical with a glorious score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the geniuses behind “Fiddler on the Roof),” and a book by Joe Masteroff (of “Cabaret” fame) that captures all the discreet charm of the time (the 1930s) and place (the sophisticated Middle European city of Budapest, Hungary) of its source, Miklos Laszlo’s play, “Parfumerie,” and the classic 1940 film version of the story, “The Shop Around the Corner.”
In his program note for the show, director-choreographer Aaron Thielen (doing his finest work to date on this show), explains: “I wanted to capture the look, the sound, and the feel [of this musical’s world] as best we could in our intimate space. From the details of the props and costume pieces, to the music’s Hungarian influence, we’re really adding the element of folk tradition back into this already amazing piece.” And he, along with his ideally chosen cast of actors, has triumphed on every count — from the winningly obsequious bows made by the sales clerks to their customers in the posh confines of Maraczek’s Parfumerie where the show is mostly set, to the hilariously confrontational anti-romantic scene in a posh restaurant that boasts its “romantic atmosphere,” to the gift of vanilla ice cream that works better than all the romantic letters blindly exchanged between two “lonely hearts” correspondents.
And with Matt Deitchman’s superb music direction (and the fine orchestra led by Patti Garwood), the beguiling Bock-Harnick score makes the mix of waltzes, gypsy fiddle riffs and Broadway blend ideally.
“She Loves Me” is a romantic comedy of manners in which distinctly Old World manners and attitudes are of the essence. They might seem like the vestiges of an extinct language to contemporary actors, yet every member of Thielen’s superb cast (whose ensemble boasts many actors who ordinarily play leading roles) has made the style feel like second nature. And this “I bow and kiss your hand” sort of decorum plays out in wonderful tension with the querulous, dyspeptic course of true love (which, of course, never does run smoothly), as well as the barely suppressed competition, insecurity and paranoia among the employees in Maraczek’s shop.
At the stormy heart of the story are two lonely people full of self-doubt on the romantic front, even if they keep their insecurities well-hidden. Georg Nowack (Alex Goodrich, the most natural, easily lovable actor-singer-dancer-comedian on any stage), has worked for 15 years as a clerk at Maraczek’s shop when Amalia Balash (Elizabeth Telford, whose distinctive soprano works wonders in every song from “No More Candy” and “Will He Like Me?” to “Vanilla Ice Cream”), arrives in a state of quiet desperation in search of a job and immediately displays her sales talent.
From the start the two get on each other’s nerves, yet unbeknownst to them they also are engaging in a wonderfully intimate if anonymous exchange of letters with each other (all of which begin with “Dear Friend”). When they finally do meet it is catastrophic, but of course before it’s all over love triumphs.
The show’s supporting characters are priceless. There is Arpad, the delivery boy who craves moving up to clerk (Grant Killian is sensational in his big number, “Try Me” ).There is Georg’s co-worker, family man Ladislav Sipos (James Earl Jones II, who has a bravura turn in “Perspective,” as the man who admits he continually suppresses his ego and self-respect in order to keep his job). There is Ilona Ritter (a snappy-sexy turn by Jessica Naimy), as the clerk who can seduce but never keep a guy, yet discovers true love on “A Trip to the Library.” There is her smarmy co-worker, Steven Kodaly (David Schlumpf as the classic Lothario), with whom she is having what she believes are secret trysts. There is their boss, Mr. Maraczek (a deft portrayal by Terry Hamilton as a man whose salad days are sadly well behind him). There is a spot-on Headwaiter (a very funny turn by Steven Strafford). And there is the parade of customers who are looking for beauty solutions and (in a manic number), last minute Christmas gifts.
Harnick’s lyrics for this show are pure magic and easily could serve as a textbook study of how to write to character, situation and period. Also period perfect are Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets, Jesse Klug’s lighting and Sally Dolembo’s marvelous costumes (including some Hungarian folkloric treasures).
Watching this show it is impossible not to think of how well its stands up to another classic : No, not the 1998 film, “You’ve Got Mail,” but yes, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s a treasure of a show.