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Martin Goes Out in Style with "She Loves Me"

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She Loves Me

Book by Joe Masteroff; music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; based on a play by Miklos Laszlo; directed by Nicholas Martin; choreography by Denis Jones; musical direction by Charlie Alterman; scenic design by James Noone; costume design by Robert Morgan; lighting design by Kenneth Posner and Philip Rosenberg; sound design by Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski IV

Cast in order of appearance:Arpad Laszlo, Jeremy Beck; Ladislav Sipos, Mark Nelson; Ilona Ritter, Jessica Stone; Steven Kodaly, Troy Britton Johnson; Georg Howack, Brooks Ashmanskas; Mr. Maraczek, Dick Latessa; Amalia Balash, Kate Baldwin; Keller, Josh Mertz; Head Waiter, Marc Vietor; Busboy, Jason Babinsky; 1st Customer, Nancy E. Carroll; 2nd Customer, Rosie Hunter; 3rd Customer, Sarah Turner; 4th Customer, Monique Alhaddad; 5th Customer, Ashley Arcement; Ensemble, Aldrin Gonzalez and Matthew Warner Kiernan

Performances: Now through June 15, Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass.
Box Office: 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

The conflict between two star-crossed lovers who by night correspond sweetly as anonymous pen pals but by day clash swords as tart-tongued co-workers is the light-hearted story at the center of the celebrated musical She Loves Me currently receiving a major revival at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, Mass. If the plot sounds familiar, that's because it has been around the block a number of times in various incarnations.

The original 1937 play The Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo became the movie The Shop around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in 1940. MGM adapted the tale into a musical called In the Good Old Summertime starring Van Johnson and Judy Garland in 1949. The Broadway musical treatment came next, making a star out of Barbara Cook when She Loves Me premiered in 1963. Thirty years later a major revival earned accolades again, scoring nine Tony Award nominations plus a win for leading man Boyd Gaines. Then in 1998, the internet age transformed the story once more, this time into a blockbuster motion picture called You've Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. There's just no denying the enduring appeal of a good love-hate relationship when the romantic and sexual chemistry sizzles.

Therein lies the problem with this ambitious, cheerful, energetic, but ultimately unsatisfying Huntington production. Despite some nifty staging and fun performances from an all-around talented cast, the needle on the spark meter between the central boy and girl of this boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl musical comedy never moves past tepid.

Brooks Ashmanskas as the arrogant yet lovelorn shop clerk Georg Howack and Kate Baldwin as the equally unlucky-in-love object of his disaffection Amalia Balash try gamely to inject life into their characters, but their efforts fall short of making a fully charged connection. Each is entertaining in his/her way. Ashmanskas is a gifted physical comedian who brings an eager puppy dog charm to Georg, and Baldwin is a lovely singer whose Amalia is both annoying and endearing. But his nice-guy appeal, even when he's supposed to be a little edgy and infuriating, gives her nothing to respond to and makes her hostility seem shrewish by comparison. His constant mugging and light-in-his-loafers mannerisms also fail to create the sexual heat necessary to keep the obvious attraction they share as suitors in their unguarded letters burning once they return as colleagues to their competitive and defensive bickering.

The unknowingly love-struck combatants are at their best once their antagonistic walls come down and they can rejoice in their mutual affection. Baldwin delivers a delightfully exuberant and almost child-like "Vanilla Ice Cream" in Act II only to be followed by Ashmanskas' equally joyful 11 o'clock number "She Loves Me" in which his uncontained ecstasy practically propels him into the rigging. These two numbers alone almost vindicate the tentativeness with which they handle the romantic friction that should ignite the emotionally charged tug-of-war of Act I.

In keeping with Ashmanskas' comically manic take on Georg, the entire production seems to gloss over the show's sentimentality, embracing a spirited, tongue-in-cheek style instead. This is most evident in choreographer Denis Jones' gloriously inventive ensemble numbers "A Romantic Atmosphere" and "Twelve Days to Christmas." The first has clandestine couples decadently cavorting in the Café Imperiale, romping and rolling while the droll head waiter, played with just the right amount of drippy sarcasm by Marc Vietor, tries valiantly to remain discreet. The second has Filene's Basement-style shoppers fighting over last-minute Christmas purchases while Maraczek's Parfumerie employees work overtime serving as both sales clerks and makeshift referees. Both numbers feature hilarious scene-stealing bits by local favorite Nancy E. Carroll, a master of the deadpan delivery. She can get more laughs with a single "humph" than any stand-up comic can get with an entire monologue.

Another standout in the fine supporting cast is Jeremy Beck as the young delivery boy Arpad Laszlo. Eager to trade his bicycle for a position inside the parfumerie, he wins over Mr. Maraczek and everyone else in the theater with his dazzling solo "Try Me." As the shop's gruff but honorable owner, Dick Latessa delivers a poignant "Days Gone By" which takes on bittersweet meaning when he learns that his wife of many years has taken up with one of his much younger store clerks, and Mark Nelson as the dutiful lap dog employee Ladislav Sipos has both comic and affecting moments when he finally develops a spine.

Troy Britton Johnson as Steven Kodaly and Jessica Stone as Ilona Ritter are less impressive as the secondary co-working couple whose on-again-off-again romance sets up what could and should be show-stopping numbers for Ilona. Johnson plays his gigolo as a fairly one dimensional, unlikable egotist and Stone plays her much put upon woman of easy heart and easier virtue with too hard an edge. Her declaration of independence from the unfaithful Kodaly, "I Resolve," is more fierce than funny, and her "A Trip to the Library" in which she discovers the merits of books now that she is dating a doting optometrist is only mildly amusing.

Johnson and Stone's characterizations, like the relationship of Georg and Amalia, lack the layers and undercurrents that could make this production of She Loves Me crackle from start to finish. Director Nicholas Martin, in this his last assignment as The Huntington's artistic head, seems to have opted for slickness over substance, perhaps to keep the pace moving and minimize the quaintness of the period book. The strength of the show has always been its bountiful and intricate score, and this production serves Bock and Harnick's music extremely well. A bit less mugging and a bit more sincerity, however, would have made Georg and Amalia's foregone happy ending a much more satisfying conclusion.

She Loves Me moves to the Williamstown Theatre Festival June 27 - July 12. Martin replaces Roger Rees as the artistic director there beginning this season. For more information visit www.wtfestival.org.

PHOTOS by Charles T. Erickson: Kate Baldwin as Amalia Balash and Brooks Ashmanskas as Georg Howack; Nancy E. Carroll and ensemble; Jessica Stone as Ilona Ritter and Troy Britton Johnson as Steven Kodaly

 


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