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Little Shop of Happiness

Who can’t love 'She Loves Me?' This utterly unpretentious, easily adored chamber musical delivers the first word in entertainment and the last word in love. Completely captivating, Marriott Theatre’s welcome revival of Harnick and Bock’s 1963 masterpiece—arguably Broadway’s most intelligent and warm-hearted musical—gets it right, over and over. Perfectly propelled by two dozen splendid songs, it’s as heartbreaking as hilarious, a sweet story seen from all sides.

Based on Parfumerie by Miklós László, this two-act treasure almost makes the concept of “charm” too weak a word for this tender and very wise winner. Sumptuously crafted and melodiously irresistible, 'She Loves Me' deserves its many Broadway believers. László’s perfectly constructed 1937 comedy inspired the 1940 film 'Little Shop Around the Corner,' 1949’s 'In the Good Old Summertime' with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and, most recently, the 1998 film 'You’ve Got Mail.'

All these wonderful works poignantly depict László’s original Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack, love-hungry souls who quarrel as they clerk in a Budapest perfume store in the pre-Hitler 1930s. Unknown to each, they’re secret correspondents who fall in love with each other’s letters. These escapist epistles forge a fantasy world to be tested against the truth. Seldom has a plot so tested the concept that, being blind, love can be thwarted by unrealistic expectations, as well as an unhealthy obsession with actuality over affection.

Will the truth kill or kindle their love? Intimate, intelligent and compassionate, Joe Masteroff’s witty book inspires Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s golden score. This lovely musical must be as delightful to rehearse as it is to see. How Amalia and Georg find each other is as delicious as the witty and wistful score by the creators of Fiddler on the Roof. (How do you improve upon “Ice Cream,” “Will He Like Me?” and the title rouser?)

From the flawless nine-person Marriott orchestra to the contagious conviction of seven whimsical principals, director/choreographer Aaron Thielen exerts a Midas touch on this jewel box—not jukebox—musical. Never forgetting we’re in Budapest, music director Matt Deitchman emphasizes accordions and gypsy violins to embellish Bock’s enthralling score.

Since casting is half the battle, finding perfect players for the parts was the first triumph for Marriott Theatre. Among the clerks, Jessica Naimy, a saucy minx, delights as love-wary, man-crazy but men-hating Ilona. Naimy delivers her emancipation anthem “I Resolve” with guts and her tour-de-force “Trip to the Library,” an entire story in a song, with glory. The wryly comical James Earl Jones II effaces himself as sycophantic Sipos, a clerk too desperately useful to be fired. David Schlumpf exudes venality as lady-killer Kodaly, his womanizing singularly palpable in the vaudeville romp “Grand Knowing You.” Veteran Terry Hamilton’s fussbudget owner Mr. Maraczek (lavishing memories on the lovely waltz “Days Gone By”) proves richly eccentric and touchingly vulnerable. Grant Kilian’s delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (alternating with Johnny Rabe) is hope on wheels. In the second act Arpad’s super-perky audition piece “Try Me” could land a job anywhere.

Of course, the reluctant lovers are the heart and soul of this peerless production. Captivatingly ordinary, they’re a signal triumph, evoking everyone who craves love hard enough to find it. Reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s awkward grace, Alex Goodrich’s goofy, gangly and stubborn Georg is as good in song as speech, with even his stiffness beguilingly real. Cleverly confused and downright decent, Georg reinvents love from the inside out, unwittingly inspired by Elizabeth Telford’s yearning, heart-hungry Amalia. As welcome a discovery as Barbara Cook was in the original production, Telford’s perfectly-pitched Amalia (her bell-like soprano conjuring up Cook’s) is natural and effortlessly entrancing. (The sigh you hear is the entire audience falling in love with her.)

'She Loves Me' works remarkably well on Marriott’s in-the-round stage: Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec has wisely—and intimately—concentrated the scenery on the arena stage, rather than spread it around the house. A trove of “Hungarica” in design and detail, the notions shop is delightfully ornamented with period elegance. Marvelously, for the all-important first act tryst it transforms instantly into the slightly scandalous but gorgeously appointed Café Imperial. Fitting in every way, Sally Dolembo’s costumes vary from peasant clothing to gentry gentility.

The performances match the set, with enough truth about hope and hurt to fuel a score of lesser shows. Textured with stage pictures that tell a dozen stories, Thielen’s choreography turns “Twelve Days to Christmas” into a high-kicking catalog of every holiday cliché from soup to nutcrackers, while the lead-in to “A Romantic Atmosphere” is the last word in demi-mondaine decadence. This staging achieves an exceedingly rare theatrical feat: it’s unimprovable.
A Broadway gem just became a Lincolnshire diamond.