BWW Review: Aeon Life Theater Presents SHE LOVES ME at the Italian Club in Ybor City
SHE LOVES ME may be the closest thing we have to a perfect musical.
Although some may view it as a mere feel-good romantic workplace comedy, based on The Shop Around the Corner and the precursor to You've Got Mail, it has charm and wit, with some of the finest songs and brilliant lyrics in musical theatre history. Each key character gets his or her own spotlight number (or numbers), from the endearing title song to "A Trip to Library" (which is like a short story in its own right), from the brown-nose anthem "Perspective" to the villain's smiling-while-nasty farewell song, "Grand Knowing You." Its various subplots are all tied in with the main storyline--two warring co-workers in a parfumerie are actually secret pen pals--and it's hard to find fault with any of it. So, the work comes closest to being as perfectly-written as any musical (music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; with the book by Joe Masteroff).
This begs the question: How can a work as great as SHE LOVES ME be so seldomly produced? The answer probably has to do with lack of name recognition outside of musical theatre circles (where it is beloved). So, whenever and wherever it's performed is a cause for celebration. And we are celebrating Aeon Life Theater who produced this at the Italian Club in Ybor City from May 2 to May 5.
The Aeon Life production is certainly lively, fun, full of wonderful singing voices, and overall quite well-directed (by Tammy Modica). There are some head-scratching moments, some questionable decisions, but the greatness that is SHE LOVES ME shines through.
As Georg Nowack, our slickly-dressed leading man, Kyle Billington has a marvelous singing voice, but sometimes seems a bit too low-key in the role. But his realness works quite well when we see him slowly, very slowly, melt for his pen pal. He looks much younger than Georg is usually played but matches up well with the show's Amalia (Brianna Burgess). He's endearing when he gets a new pen pal letter, almost bouncing with child-like glee. His first big solo, "Tonight at Eight," is well-rendered, while his version of the song "She Loves Me" is rightfully giddy.
Brianna Burgess, with her sparkling eyes, is spot-on as Amalia. She boasts an angelic singing voice, and her "No More Candy" is a great introduction to her energy. But she breaks our hearts with "Will He Like Me?"--a song where a young woman must face her own loneliness, breaking free of her fear and going to meet someone for the first time, someone who she fears may not like her. And when her supposed love does not show at a restaurant, she sings the poignant "Dear Friend" for all it's worth. And Burgess nails her big song of Act 2, "Vanilla Ice Cream," which is that rare number that is both quirky and iconic.
The ending when Georg and Amalia realize the truth gets me every time, no matter how many times I have seen the show (or acted in it or directed it).
Rachael Dugas-Murray, dressed in red, is quite funny as Ilona, the "loose" woman of the parfumerie. She gives one of the best performances of the show. I love how she reacts to her wicked lover when he sings "Ilona"; she fawns all over him, like a teen at a BTS concert. She sings "A Trip to the Library" stirringly, but unfortunately, she's behind a table the whole time, trapped for the duration of the number. Ho hum. This should be an exciting tune, building with its Bolero beat as it continues, the culmination of Ilona's storyline. But for the first time ever, to my ears, this exquisite song feels long.
The cad, Kodaly, donning a pink tie and vest, is played by Jose Rodriguez, who is always at his sleazy best as he flirts with seemingly everyone on the stage. He seduces rather than sells, always on the prowl with his reptilian smirk. The only thing he loves more than the ladies is himself. I like how Kodaly is even at the start of the big restaurant sequence, but quickly flees when he sees his co-workers there. His "Grand Knowing You" is well-done but way too fast, losing the power of some of his slithering remarks. Rodriguez needs to savor each moment, each insult that he hurls; slow is more powerful than fast, especially when spoken by a snake. But the actor is having the time of his life in the role first made famous by the great Jack Cassidy; villainy never seemed so much fun.
Patrick Roach is marvelous as Sipos, the butt-kissing employee who is the key to the action, even though he always seems to hover in the background. His "Perspective" is out of this world (literally, if you listen to the lyrics). Nick Cooper is adorably spirited as the delivery boy Arpad. His Act 2 opener, "Try Me," was stunning and received an appropriate ovation from the audience. And the animated Katie Michaels steals the show as the Head Waiter in the rambunctious "A Romantic Atmosphere."
One of my other favorites in the cast is Doug Buffaloe as the parfumerie owner, Mr. Maraczek. I have seen this role performed several times, and even played the part myself three decades ago. But I admire Mr. Buffaloe's take on the character: He underplays the boss winningly. Sly, stealthily imposing. He's almost quiet in the role, a dormant volcano ready to unleash; a shark smile on his face, ready to bite. And when he does explode, it's harrowing. But there's pathos there as well; when he finds out the truth about his adulterous wife, you see the sorrow in his eyes, the aloneness that he knows he's going to face. Mr. Buffaloe also choreographed the show, and Maraczek's early solo number, the hearty "Days Gone By," is one of the highlights. My only quibble with the part has nothing to do with the performance; it has to do with his wardrobe. In the last scene, right before Christmas, Mr. Maraczek doesn't wear a coat. This is December in Budapest; it's cold!
The ensemble is a vibrant lot, and their harmonies (care of music director Joseph Canessa) are lovely: Christina Morisi, Michael Cote, Brittany Canessa, Jade Roberts, Amanda Lewis, Nic Harrington and Doug Harmon. My pick for best ensemble member is Pamela Stamey, who is always in character and stands out; at times you want to follow her character as well as the employees of Maraczek's Parfumerie.
The customer-employee number, "Songs While Selling" is a musical gem, and there's not another song quite like it anywhere. Where else can you find the line, "I would like an eyebrow/Under my/Chin..."?
There are several issues with the show. The opening number, "Good Morning, Good Day," is enchantingly sung, but the cast stands in a straight line throughout it, which makes it less enthralling than it should be. Some songs are blocked behind a table, like "I Don't Know His Name" and the aforementioned "A Trip to the Library," which isn't ideal. There were some sound issues and major enunciation issues, where we couldn't quite understand what was being said. And the costumes ranged from quite good to extremely questionable. Some of the dresses were way too short for December and the time period, and Amalia's open-toed shoes were inappropriate, anachronistic, for time and place. There were pacing issues as well. Act 1 felt long, and if there is a criticism of SHE LOVES ME in any production, it's that Act 1 goes on way too long (90+ minutes).
The set works quite well and is extremely serviceable, and the show itself proved so much fun to watch. If you've never experienced SHE LOVES ME (and shame on you if you haven't), then venture to the Italian Club on Sunday afternoon for the final performance. I wish Aeon Life would add an extra weekend to their productions, so more people can feel the love of shows like SHE LOVES ME. Whatever the company does next, and wherever the show will play, I'll be there.