BWW Review: Lots to Love in SHE LOVES ME at Greater Boston Stage Company
She Loves Me
Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Based on a play by Miklos Laszio, Directed and Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Director, Matthew Stern; Scenic Design, Brynna Bloomfield; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design, John Stone; Properties Master, Shauwna Grillo; Production Stage Manager, Rachel Sturm
CAST (in alphabetical order): Brendan Callahan, Sara Coombs, Sean Mitchell Crosley, Aimee Doherty, Jennifer Ellis, Bransen Gates, Angelo McDonough, Jennifer Mischley, Sarajane Morse Mullins, Tom Gleadow, Kirsten Salpini, Robert Saoud, Sam Simahk, Nick Sulfaro, Jared Troilo
Performances through December 23 at Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.greaterbostonstage.org
If the cast and design team of Greater Boston Stage Company's She Loves Me happened to be in the business of football instead of musical theater, they would be hoisting the Super Bowl trophy for sure, notwithstanding the greatness of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Move over, Bill Belichick, and surrender your hoodie to Ilyse Robbins as the creative leader of this team of champions. While the Pats excel on offense, defense, and special teams, this ensemble is made up of triple-threat players whose singing, dancing, and acting skills combine to light up the Stoneham stage and bring out the best in the delightful Joe Masteroff book and Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick score.
Director/choreographer Robbins has Music Director Matthew Stern by her side to run the offense. Playing keyboard and conducting an eight-piece band (out of sight upstage), Stern doesn't miss a beat, whether it is backing the vocals or replicating the tinkling melody of a music box. One of the nice features of She Loves Me is that each of the principals gets their moment to shine in a musical number, while developing the character and moving the story forward. In the opening song ("Good Morning, Good Day"), they arrive one by one for work at Maraczek's Parfumerie and sing their greetings. It's a great introduction to the staff: senior clerk Ladislav Sipos (Robert Saoud), teenage delivery boy Arpad (Brendan Callahan), stylish single sales clerk Ilona Ritter (Aimee Doherty), roguish and flirtatious clerk Steven Kodaly (Jared Troilo), and Georg Nowack (Sam Simahk), a bachelor and Mr. Maraczek's (Tom Gleadow) right-hand man.
She Loves Me tells a familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-hates-girl, (SPOILER) boy-gets-girl story that has been around and told in many versions (the movies: The Shop Around the Corner and You've Got Mail), but it never gets old. The tale of two people who work together and share a lonely hearts correspondence without knowing it is enhanced and enriched by the addition of music. In this case, it is especially enhanced and enriched by Robbins' vision, the stellar ensemble, and luminous leading lady Jennifer Ellis as the romance-seeking Amalia. Ellis has displayed her comedic skills in a variety of roles, and she has shown an ability to get to the depths of many an emotional song, but she is deserving of a game ball for her soaring vocals ("Will He Like Me," "Vanilla Ice Cream") mixed with a disarming insecurity that makes your heart ache for Amalia. Fresh from a killer performance in the Huntington Theatre's Merrily We Roll Along, Ellis easily slides into another sympathetic persona, but one with greater vocal challenges and more responsibility.
Back in Boston after touring in the Lincoln Center production of The King and I, Simahk makes beautiful music and sparks fly with Ellis. There is a relaxed quality to his acting style that belies his ability to crawl inside the character and put his imprint on him. Georg is an average, decent guy who harbors a hidden desire for something more, and Simahk gradually releases bits of Georg's emotional life. It's fun to watch him share his secrets with Sipos, the guy who has seen it all and just keeps smiling through, beautifully played by the reliable Saoud. Troilo succeeds in eliciting our disdain as the unctuous Kodaly, yet wins points for his smooth vocalizing. Doherty captures the many facets of Ilona, conveying her ambivalence about her relationship with Kodaly, as well as her utter disbelief when she finds a good man at the library, and shines in her character's two songs ("I Resolve," "A Trip to the Library").
As employer and employee, Gleadow and Callahan (both making their GBSC debuts) share a father-son chemistry. As Mr. Maraczek, Gleadow ranges from blustery to kind, but is always courteous and deferential to the customers, while Callahan inhabits the youthful exuberance of Arpad. After seeing him perform "Try Me," it's no wonder that the high school junior won the role. Nick Sulfaro makes an impression as the beleaguered Head Waiter ("A Romantic Atmosphere") trying to deal with a clumsy busboy (Angelo McDonough), and Sara Coombs and Bransen Gates add style to the surroundings with their crisp tango. The ensemble (Sean Mitchell Crosley, Jennifer Mischley, Sarajane Morse Mullins, Kirsten Salpini) rotate in and out as the patrons of Maraczek's, as well as the mysterious couples at Café Imperiale.
As the story unfolds, so does the Brynna Bloomfield-designed set, with the facade of Maraczek's opening like a book to reveal the lovely interior of the shop. The clerks each stand behind a glass display case to sell their wares, with Maraczek's office door upstage, and another work area in a loft atop a spiral staircase. When the scene shifts to a romantic restaurant, the glass cases are replaced by round hi-top tables and chairs, and lighting designer Jeff Adelberg's talents are on display with an atmospheric red hue, reduced wattage, and star-like projections on the walls. A hospital room and a bedroom are both simply, but effectively evoked by rolling out a bed and a curtain, and a bed and an armoire, respectively, downstage of the facade. Gail Astrid Buckley's costume designs reflect the fashions of 1930s Budapest and aid in defining the characters. She artfully dresses the parade of ladies (mostly) and gentlemen who patronize the shop, and provides some razzle dazzle with her designs for the denizens of the Café Imperiale.
In some ways, it may feel quaint or dated to watch a play about two people who write letters to each other as a way of getting acquainted. After all, who writes letters these days? Technology has only eliminated the paper and pen or typewriter as instruments of correspondence, but it has substituted email and social media. In an age where nearly everyone has the opportunity to connect online, She Loves Me remains relevant as it shows the origin of the species, if you will. However, more importantly, it is a simple, intimate story that is driven by the characters and their search for connection and love. That's something we can all relate to and appreciate, especially in the holiday season. Take a dear friend to see She Loves Me, get some vanilla ice cream, and then...?