BWW Review: SHE LOVES ME at Musical Theater Heritage
From Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the musical minds that created "Fiddler On the Roof," springs "She Loves Me" a much less ambitious 1963 romantic comedy treatment written just prior to "Fiddler." "She Loves Me" opened at the MTH Theater at Crown Center this past weekend for a three-week run ending on April 9.
Producers love this tale of two lonely people who toil in a perfume store located in pre-War Budapest, Hungary. MTH Producing Artistic Director Sarah Crawford has again performed her customary mystical alchemy. She has assembled an outstanding group of voices for this presentation in the traditional Musical Theater Heritage almost concert - with dance, lighting, and set piece format.
"She Loves Me" is a bit of an anachronism. The original play "Parfumerie" by Miklos Laszlo premiered in Budapest at the Pest Theater in 1936. Laszlo, who was a German Jew, fled Hungary for America just prior to the outbreak of World War II. "Parfumerie" was transformed in 1940 into a film with James Stewart, in 1949 into another film with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and in 1998 into "You've Got Mail" with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The Ryan/Hanks version is almost unrecognizable from the original. Meanwhile, a 1963 musical version ran for just 300 performances on Broadway.
Like I said, producers love this story. Despite its limited success on Broadway in 1963, "She Loves Me" enjoyed a London run, concert versions in 1977 and 2011, and big time revivals in 1993, and 2016.
The dominant plotline concerns painfully shy Georg (Patrick Beasley) and Amalia (Lauren Braton). Both are employees of a family owned perfume store. He has placed an advertisement in the personal column of the local newspaper under "Lonely Hearts." Amalia has answered and they have been anonymously corresponding for over a year. The two faceless correspondents have fallen hopelessly in love. The irony is that at work they can't stand each other.
Complicating the romantic comedy are several intertwined subplots. Second lead cute, funny, Ilona Ritter (Katie Barlow) is having a troubled on and off again affair with slick, store clerk, Lothario Steven Kodaly (T. Eric Morris). Perfume store owner Mr. Maraczek (Andy Garrison) believes his wife is having an affair with Georg. He is mistaken. Delivery Boy Arpad (Fisher Stewart) wants desperately to be advanced in his chosen career as a full-fledged clerk at the perfume store.
"She Loves Me" is a conventionally structured 1950s/1960s style musical. The leads are two couples backed up with an older character on whom the plot complicates and advances. There are the usual comic specialty characters. The music here is significant featuring strong scoring and demanding unusual vocal ranges. A touch of the Klezmer rhythms from "Fiddler" surfaces in at least one point in the accompaniment, but only the title song from the second act is easily familiar.
The production is demanding for the female lead not only for vocal range, but also for comic transformations in attitude. Lauren Bratton has an excellent, classically trained, operatic first soprano. She coincidentally has the ability to downshift and mug into musical comedy mode. There is a YouTube clipping of the 2016 Broadway revival available and Lauren compares vocally very favorably. In the 300 seat auditorium at MTH, Lauren has no need of amplification. Patrick Beasley as Georg is a nice complement opposite Lauren and similarly compares favorably with the last Broadway incarnation.
Joshua Baum as Ladislav has only one song, but the young operatic baritone displays significant musical chops at the top of his impressive high range. His voice is outstanding and classically supported. Fisher Stewart as Arpad will become an emerging Kansas City top actor. His "Try Me" in Act II is well performed; complete with a tumbling run across the stage ending in a back flip. It is a show stopper.
There are no weak performances in MTH's "She Loves Me." There are, however, some confusions that can be cleared up in the pre-show talk and should be. Except for the use of period hats, the show is costumed for present day America. Today, it would be unlikely to find a specialty shop selling perfume as its main line with in-store packaged cosmetics. This musical play is obviously set somewhere other than America and in a different time. Characters sport foreign sounding names and store merchandise is priced using a foreign currency system. "Lonely Hearts" personals have moved on from newspapers and snail mail to various on-line platforms. What 2017 delivery boy sets his ultimate career goal to be a clerk in a perfume store?
Some bewilderment can also be sensed in the audience. A more willing suspension of disbelief can be achieved by sharing an actual time and location. If the director chooses not to use the original eastern European dialects, a move to New York or Chicago in the 1930s would allow for an easier audience buy-in to the central premise.
Like many golden age musicals, second lead couples often walk off with the plaudits. Katie Barlow as Ilona sparkles. She sings... she dances... she connects charmingly with her audience. The Ilona part is positioned in much the same way as other memorable second leads like Ado Annie (from "Oklahoma"), Meg (from "Brigadoon"), or Miss Adelaide (from "Guys and Dolls"), Among the actresses formerly entrusted formerly with Ilona are Rita Moreno and Best Supporting Actress Jane Krakowski winner of the Drama Desk Award in 2016.
Katie makes the most of her tasty character opportunity opposite the dastadly T. Eric Morris as Steven. Morris holds his own both vocally and on the dance floor. The original Steven character came to life in the person of the swarmingly, charming Jack Cassidy who collected the show's only Tony award as supporting actor in 1964.
Audiences will enjoy this good production of producers' favorite show. Tickets for "She Loves Me" are available at the MTH website or by telephone at (816) 221-6987.
Photo courtesy of MTH.