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'She Loves Me' keeps it real in this little perfume shop


Prolonged emotional intimacy can be tricky at the Marriott Theatre — an in-the-round auditorium where the physical stillness of a scene always is limited by the audience's tolerance for watching the back of someone's head. By dint of necessity and years of experience, shows at the Marriott have to stay on the move.
But director Aaron Thielen's very lovely new production of the 1963 musical "She Loves Me," which opened Wednesday night in Lincolnshire, manages to carve out an exception for itself.

It's partly because this charming show — the book is by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics are by Sheldon Harnick — is set mostly inside a shop. An old-school perfumery, to be exact. The work is an adaptation of Miklos Laszlo's play "Parfumerie," and the Ernst Lubitsch movie, "The Shop Around the Corner," that was based on the play. A three-dimensional retail floor — with counters designed quite beautifully by Jeffrey D. Kmiec and lit by Jesse Klug — fits very naturally into this space.

But there's more to it. The characters in "She Loves Me" (a musical loved by many for such quirky numbers as "Vanilla Ice Cream," "Dear Friend" and the title song) are mostly of the lower-middle class; they are ordinary folks striving to have successful romantic relationships, and often failing in the process. The main couple, Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, are both clerks at Mr. Maraczek's store; they irritate each other on a daily basis. Each, though, has fallen in love with a "dear friend," an anonymous pen pal whom they soon hope to meet. (If you saw "You've Got Mail," you get the idea). The joke, of course, is that they both have no idea that their annoying co-worker is their heart's desire.

It's not a spoiler to point that out, even if you haven't seen this show. (There was a smaller Chicago-area production at Writers Theatre in Glencoe in 2010 with Jessie Mueller, who was just about to hit it bigger than Amalia Balash could ever have imagined.) That's because "She Loves Me," which still has some fervent fans, is the rare musical that keeps its audience ahead of the characters all the time; its humor and charm comes from the dramatic irony we watch and the gentle superiority we are able to feel.

If you don't really care about and root for that couple, the show is toast. But you do care about them at the Marriott, not least because Alex Goodrich, who wisely has dialed back his comic wackiness, and Elizabeth Telford, whose heart seems to ooze warmth and uncertainty, turn in such honest, vulnerable and essentially realistic performances. This is perhaps Thielen's best work at the Marriott: he's found a way to keep a relentless focus on the show's humanity and honesty. That means the show also has license to be funny, with gags flowing from Steven Strafford, who plays the head waiter, the man forever striving to maintain a romantic atmosphere despite his customers' inability to calm the heck down.

Everybody here has poignancy, from the terrific Jessica Naimy, who plays the racier woman in the shop and still makes her real, to James Earl Jones II, who makes a kind-hearted best friend to all, to Terry Hamilton, who plays the patriarch of the business and who avoids any managerial huffing and puffing as the clerks are managed and cajoled. Even though this is a smaller role, Hamilton still crafts a performance that suggests empathy for the problems of a small-business owner, which have not changed much since 1963.

And the vocal interpretations of this exquisite song suite, under the musical direction of Matt Deitchman, are mostly excellent.

I suspect Thielen was newly intrigued by this title after the successful Broadway revival at the Roundabout Theatre last year, a well-received production that brought attention to a quieter little show that, in a fine production like this one, can make you feel truly nostalgic for the dying retail age.

This material is not about to cause a sudden youth explosion at the Marriott Theatre, but that doesn't mean it lacks relevance. If you know this piece, you'll recall there is a little gimmick where the clerks sing their thanks to every customer as she leaves. I've seen that come off as forced, but in this production, it feels organic. And the face of the ensemble actress Cassie Slater, which gets sung to a lot, for its owner has to play many different customers, lights up differently each time.

But always with a reminder that we ordinary folks like it a whole lot when we're treated special in a shop.