BWW Review: Old School Musical Comedy SHE LOVES ME Mostly Charms at OC's South Coast Repertory
Before seeing South Coast Repertory's brand new production of the 1963 Broadway musical SHE LOVES ME!---now on stage in Costa Mesa through February 22, 2020---I made the conscious decision to rewatch the peppy 2016 Roundabout Theatre Company revival that was live-streamed on BroadwayHD and later aired on PBS and screened in movie theaters, just so that I can reacquaint myself with this delightfully charming old-school musical comedy that featured music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and a book by Joe Masteroff before going to see the new local revival here in the O.C.
Rewatching this effervescent 2016 revival reminded me again about the quirky characters that populate this joyous show, including its likable central contentious pair of bickering co-workers that have no idea that they are love note-passing secret pen pals---here played winningly by Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi, actors who both display a mastery of endearing sweetness, humorous sassiness, and comedic facial expressions that reveal and convey so much without being over-the-top in their acting performances.
While I certainly loved rewatching the filmed stage show again, doing so also had an unfortunately timed side-effect: watching it made me wish South Coast Repertory's new version---directed by the theater's own artistic director David Ivers---replicated many of the same euphoric feelings I experienced while watching the 2016 production.
Sure, though SCR's admirable SHE LOVES ME, for the most part, still has many charming, beautifully-staged, and well-sung moments, it also somehow feels like it is slightly reigned in, as if there was a purposeful attempt to downscale some of its built-in whimsy and spirited vivaciousness---particularly in the first act where emotional expressions all seem to sit in the same middle area... never tipping over to too angry or too sad or too happy or too, well, anything (that is, until we meet an over-enunciating maitre d that finds the audience, understandably, giggling heavily for the first time since the show began).
The resulting show---while still entertaining thanks to some lovely singing and some terrific displays of choreographed chaos---feels like it could've used a bit more jolted oomph in its personality overall, something that I feel other productions had no issues finding in the material, despite its old-fashioned machinations.
Though the ensemble looks like they're sprinting at a dizzying pace, many of this production's characters feel too broadly painted to register any sort of distinctive personalities that make us invested in knowing more about them---even as we are continuously impressed by their singing prowess.
Visually, the production is a stunning one. Jo Winiarski's clever set design---reminiscent of the Broadway revival's transformative set---prominently features a spectacularly impressive central oval structure that acts as the show's 1930's storefront exterior when closed, but then opens up (spoiler alert) to reveal the posh interior of Maraczek's perfume shop that pops with vibrant color. Jaymi Lee Smith paints lovely scenes with the lighting design while Alex Jaeger's well tailored 30's Euro costumes reiterates the story's setting and era. Meanwhile, Jaclyn Miller's dynamic choreography movements bring some visual excitement to the more static breaks for, uh, banter.
Music-wise, Harnick and Bock's song book is voiced beautifully, however, had the show's live band conductor Tom Griep not emerge before the start of the show to swing a few strokes of his baton, the audience would have never known the show is performed with a live 8-person orchestra housed stage right, due to the music sounding slightly muffled and tinny, as if pre-recorded tracks were used. This is a rare surprise from an SCR musical production, because, though the theater does not do a lot of musicals, the ones they have produced in recent memory have never sounded like it used "canned' music. The start of the show, admittedly, sounds a bit rough, but, thankfully, improves as the show progresses.
If you're thinking you are unfamiliar with SHE LOVES ME, chances are that is probably true---even if the musical uses a story that feels familiar. A great example of a traditional book musical, the show is rarely produced (this is the first time since reviewing professionally that I have had a chance to see the show live), perhaps because much of it can come off a bit dated. But a fresh approach to the staging and tweaks to character performances are usually enough to make the show endearingly charming and winningly nostalgic.
Based on Hungarian playwright Miklós László's 1937 play Parfumerie, the musical's secret lovers/opposites attract love story is, of course, a familiar construct---so much so that the play directly inspired the 1940 movie classic The Shop Around the Corner that starred James Stewart opposite Margaret Sullavan, the 1949 movie musical In the Good Old Summertime that entangled Judy Garland with Van Johnson, and, much later, the 1998 cinematic reimagining You've Got Mail that had Tom Hanks corresponding electronically with Meg Ryan.
SHE LOVES ME is, chronologically, the third adaptation of László's play, making its Broadway debut in 1963 and retaining much of the play's narrative that sets the action in Budapest, starting in the summer of 1934. In this iteration of László's story, the mystery lovers are Georg Nowack (Brian Vaughn) and Amalia Balash (the luminous Erin Mackey), two constantly bickering shop clerks at a boutique perfume shop named after its owner, the seemingly often stressed-out Mr. Maraczek (Gregory North). Georg seems to be Maraczek's trusted, go-to, right-hand man, while Amalia just got hired to replace a former clerk after impressing Maraczek with her knack for sales pitches.
Both are openly vicious towards each other as the show progresses---which is, of course, the cardinal rule of romantic comedies: that the more you can't stand each other, the more likely you'll fall in love later.
But, unbeknownst to either person, Georg and Amalia are secretly corresponding to each other via love letters (both are members of something called a "lonely hearts club," which I suppose is the Tinder of its day). As the two try to outsell each other at work, the two exchange romantic sweet passages off hours, understandably curious who the other person is. They keep intending to meet face-to-face but both parties are scared to be disappointed.
Meanwhile, their co-workers, the roaming lothario Steven Kodaly (Sam Ludwig) and naive Ilona Ritter (Marlene Martinez) are involved in a hot-and-cold sexual relationship that appears to benefit Kodaly more than Miss Ritter, who seems to want real love despite what she ends up settling for in her dating life. It was my understanding that these two characters are supposed to lust after each other, yet a sort of bawdy portrayal never emerges to highlight this. Their repartee is so subtle that, at one point, my friend turned to me puzzled. He had no idea that Kodaly and Ilona were already involved in a tryst until Kodaly's "seductive" song with her.
Standing by observing all the hullabaloo is happily married senior (in age) store clerk Ladislov Sipos (Matthew Henerson) and young, overly eager delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (Ricky Abilez).
Unlike, the overtly more buoyant and, dare I say, more cheeky 2016 revival, SCR's tamed production takes time to pick up its steam, mostly because its characters feel like they're not allowed to let themselves loosen up. This causes the show to feel even more dated in many parts, instead of playfully winking to an audience with more modern sensibilities. Little is gleaned from any of the periphery characters beyond their centrist personas that the audience is allowed to observe, where the most emotion expressed at any given moment comes only from two characters: Mr. Maraczek---whose manic, anger-tinged barking will later reveal some scandalous discoveries---and the over-the-top, overly panicked head waiter played with gleeful irritability by Danny Scheie. His scene-stealing turn is pure farce and is absurd and insanely silly in all the right ways... and is the energetic kneeslap that this production of SHE LOVES ME truly needed.
Things improve immensely in Act 2, as if all the characters are finally given some freedom to come alive and for the audience to finally start caring about their journeys. Vaughn's Georg finally sheds the tame everyman exterior in favor of a more giddy guy who can declare his emotions and neuroses.
This helps dial up his chemistry with the livelier Mackey tremendously, who has spent most of the musical---aside from that awesome set, of course---as the production's best and most valuable asset. Armed with a glorious soprano paired with endearing line deliveries, Mackey, perhaps by default of the production, is truly the only player allowed to vividly shine and seems to truly know who her character is. She is especially darling and quite adorable in "Vanilla Ice Cream," arguably the show's most memorable tune and a true highlight that had everyone in smiles.
Overall, while it is still a genuinely entertaining, mostly charming production of SHE LOVES ME---peppered with lovely singing voices and an even lovelier set---a part of me still wishes it gets an extra shot of joy, romance, and pep to make it more complete. Anyway, what is love without the extreme highs and lows?
Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory.
Performances of SHE LOVES ME continue at South Coast Repertory through February 22, 2020. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
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