Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
She Loves Me
Sometimes described as a "jewel box" of a musical, She Loves Me is based on Hungarian playwright Miklós László's 1937 play, Parfumerie. That play was also the basis for three films: The Shop Around the Corner in 1940, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan; In the Good Old Summertime in 1949, starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and You've Got Mail in 1998, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But the stage musical, first crossing the Broadway boards in 1963 starring Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey under the direction of famed director Harold Prince, stays truest to its source. It has been revived on Broadway twice: once in 1993, and more recently in 2016 with Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi, and each time a new generation is delighted to discover it.
With a book by Joe Masteroff, who later penned the classic Cabaret, She Loves Me is set in 1930s Budapest, particularly in a parfumerie owned by Zoltan Maraczek (Ray Dooley) and staffed by a rather dynamic bunch. Ladislav Sipos (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), the elder of the crew, prefers to do his work and avoid gossip as best he can. Steven Kodaly (Adam Poole) and Ilona Ritter (Janet Krupin) have been carrying on a romantic relationship, though his devil-may-care attitude toward women has Ilona questioning whether or not he is worth her attention. Meanwhile, Georg Nowack (Michael Maliakel) and new hire Amalia Balash (Jenny Latimer) are off to a rocky start, though both are a bit distracted by letters they are receiving from mysterious pen pals they found in lonely hearts advertisements. Add in Arpad Laszlo (Connor Nielsen), the ambitious delivery boy, and there is no shortage of plot twists and character developments to be had. Mr. Masteroff has crafted a book that never lags, with never a moment wasted.
The score is provided by one of the most successful theatre duos of the 20th century: Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), of Fiddler on the Roof fame. The two give this score a similarly Eastern European feel, and though it is not as memorable as Fiddler, it has some gems, including Georg's "Tonight at Eight," and Amalia's "Will He Like Me?" Peppered throughout are witty and humorous lyrics, which buoy up songs like "Sounds While Selling," which mashes up sales floor conversations to comedic effect, and "Twelve Days to Christmas," which contorts the similar carol with wry sarcasm. As charming as these songs are in the moment, though, they don't quite stick in the ear, which may be why this show is not more widely known.
Under the direction of Kristen Sanderson, making her PlayMakers debut, this staging of She Loves Me fits both the Paul Green Theatre and the holiday season quite nicely. Daniel Zimmerman, also making his PlayMakers debut, has created a scenic design that is kind of like the candy box Amalia describes to one of her customers: pleasing to the eye but supremely functional. Ms. Sanderson clearly has focused this production on the characters, who are not overshadowed by the kind of dazzling visuals that were featured in the recent Broadway revival. Be prepared to keep an eye on the balcony area of the stage, as some moments up there can be missed easily. I fear that the comedic lyrics of "Twelve Days to Christmas," sung by the chorus from above, were lost on the audience, distracted by the chaotic holiday shopping scene below.
Overall, this production runs incredibly smoothlyup until the scene in which Amalia and Georg meet and clash in a café. Though that musical number, "A Romantic Atmosphere," is sung wonderfully by Dan Toot's Head Waiter, Tracy Bersley's choreography suddenly turns rather vulgar, feeling out of place in a show that otherwise maintains its decorum. This number is perhaps the weakest link in the score already, seemingly there to give the chorus a bit more to do, but this production makes it feel even more unnecessary.
One of the true joys of She Loves Me is that all seven main characters provide rich material for their actors. PlayMakers regulars Ray Dooley and Jeffrey Blair Cornell, as Mr. Maraczek and Mr. Sipos, are always a delight to see. Adam Poole's Kodaly is the heartthrob you love to despise. Jenny Latimer, a standout after only three years with the company, is radiant here as Amalia with her beautiful soprano. In her PlayMakers debut, Janet Krupin comes close to stealing the show with her lovely voice and brilliant comedic timing; her solo, "A Trip to the Library," is a standout. Michael Maliakel also is making his PlayMakers debut as Georg, and what a wonderful debut it is. He reminds me of a winsome young Anthony Perkins crossed with a charismatic Jimmy Stewart, with a beautiful baritone as a bonus. Let's hope this will not be his only appearance on the PlayMakers stage.
In today's digital world of dating apps, people can eliminate potential mates with the swipe of a finger. But what about the diamonds in the rough? She Loves Me is a love letter to the little engines who could, and this production is yet more proof from PlayMakers that good things come in modest packages.
She Loves Me, through December 9, 2018, by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27599. Tickets can be purchased online at www.playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.
Book: Joe Masteroff