BWW Review: SHE LOVES ME, Menier Chocolate Factory
For those seeking festive revelry, but with an equally seasonal undertow of quiet melancholy, She Loves Me is the blissful solution. Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's 1963 musical adaptation of Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie, which also inspired the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You've Got Mail, is a sparkling Christmas bauble of a show that shone on Broadway earlier this year, and now comes to us in delectable intimate form in the small but mighty musicals powerhouse that is the Menier.
In fact, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, in the audience on press night, proclaimed this his favourite version of the work, though it's possible that - like the show's charming cad Steven Kodaly - he says that to all the girls. Nevertheless, this venue and Matthew White's production does seem to bring the best out of a piece that impresses not just in its madcap set-pieces, but in the small human interactions which can set off seismic events.
The setting is Thirties Budapest, where the hard-working clerks of a parfumerie are all too aware of employment instability - a rival store has just closed down. When Amalia Balash talks her way into a job at Maraczek's, she threatens second-in-command Georg Nowack, leading to mutual suspicion and furious sniping. But naturally they're also falling in love thanks to a lonely hearts column correspondence, each writing ardently to their anonymous "dear friend".
A tale that could well become overly winsome romcom is instead given layers thanks to two secondary plots: blonde bombshell Ilona's mistreatment by fellow clerk Kodaly, and the marital problems of shop owner Mr Maraczek, leading to a shocking first half cliffhanger. Maraczek's despair ups the stakes for the central couple's search for love, and Ilona is the wry cautionary tale reminding us how easily it can all go wrong.
As Maraczek, Les Dennis nicely sells the waltzing reminisces of the older man. However, he's more harassed than truly anguished, shying away from necessary darkness - an exception to this superbly cast ensemble's judicious balance of heart, veracity and eccentric humour. Mark Umbers's buttoned-up Georg disintegrates marvellously during pre-date nerves number "Tonight at Eight", shows vicious pettiness as Amalia picks at his insecurities, and is a giddy delight during the revelatory title song.
As blithe, forthright Amalia, Scarlett Strallen uses her operatic prowess for both hilarious effect - hard-selling a music box as a Weight Watchers tool with the voice of God - and soaring emotion, epitomised by the irresistible take-home song "Vanilla Ice Cream". But she has serious competition from Katherine Kingsley, who invests the Miss Adelaide-esque Ilona with a beguiling combination of knowing sensuality, weary experience and evergreen hope.
There's great support too from Callum Howells as a fresh-faced delivery boy with big dreams, Alastair Brookshaw as a beleaguered clerk with a pride-sacrificing survival technique, Dominic Tighe as the deliciously evil philanderer (his "Grand Knowing You" is fantastic), and the comic tour de force that is Cory English as a wild-eyed maître d' trying to maintain a "romantic atmosphere".
The latter is the centre of a number that teeters brilliantly on the edge of madness, as patrons of the restaurant fight and flirt, leap and spin, and employ chairs and tablecloths in a high-voltage parodic take on the running love/hate theme. Throughout, Rebecca Howell's choreography is invested with detailed, kooky character, cleverly supporting ravishing numbers that really do reveal inner lives in a way that advances the story.
White's slick production also services the fast-paced, screwball wit and zany slapstick, necessary to prevent the piece descending into schmaltz - particularly once we get falling snow and twinkling decorations added to Paul Farnsworth's enticing jewellery box of a set, whose rotating flats seem to dance alongside the cast. The parfumerie is glittering pink and gold, while the lovers' café offers scarlet seduction with hidden alcoves.
It's both a period charmer and oddly resonant, with a romantic experience applicable to online dating, shadows of a recession, and emphasis on the need for compassion rather than instant judgement of others - plus frantic Christmas shoppers will recognise its portrait of last-minute retail panic. A swoon-worthy seasonal treat that captures the wonder and absurdity of love.
Photo credit: Alastair Muir