She Loves Me: A Review
Lately, I have been bemoaning the absence of pure joy in musical theatre. In fact, it seems that most Broadway musicals have to be emotionally eviscerating or screaming, over-microphoned, power belting diva battles to succeed. If comedy is attempted, musical theatre has to be salacious, mean-spirited or vulgar. Sometimes it is nice to go to the theatre and just get absorbed in a delightful plot, a comedy of errors with characters who make you smile and songs that stick in your brain because they actually have a melody. Is it any wonder, then, that I find myself in a state of euphoria over Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the 1963 Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joe Masteroff musical She Loves Me.
Set in Budapest, Hungary during the 1930s, She Loves Me revolves around the colorful staff of Marcazek’s Parfumerie, in particular it’s head clerk Georg Nowalk (Zachary Levi) and their newest clerk Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti). Georg and Amalia are both members of a lonely hearts club, an anonymous pen pal exchange, where they write deeply intellectual and amorously poetic letters to each other. At work, they are unaware of each other’s identities as their respective “Dear Friend”, the anonymity made all the more hilarious by the fact that they seem to despise each other in person. She finds him arrogant and petty. He finds her annoying and uncooperative. She Loves Me is all about the complications that put them at at odds and that eventually lead to their learning the truth. Falling in love is just the happy byproduct of their neuroses and desperation to find romance. We’ve all been there, so we easily identify.
From the minute the conductor raises his baton, the audience is rapt. There’s applause during the overture for a violinist who plays a tricky little solo to perfection. The curtain rises on the charming exterior of Maraczek’s Parfumerie. The colors are all warm and inviting, and you feel as if you are in a fairytale Old European city. The audience applauds its inviting lushness (a tip of the hat to designer David Rockwell). The cast arrives, one-by-one, to the strains of “Good Morning, Good Day”: the incompetent Mr. Sipos (Michael McGrath), the eager teenage delivery boy Arpad (Nicholas Barasch), the dim-witted but adorable Ms. Ritter (Jane Krakowski), the womanizing lothario Mr. Kodaly (Gavin Creel), and finally Georg (Levi). Director Scott Ellis stages the spritely number with economy and attention to establishing each character in our hearts immediately. The audience applauds with unbridled enthusiasm. At the song’s conclusion, the shop’s kindly proprietor Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings) arrives and the parfumerie itself magically comes to life, unfurling of its own volition, like an ornate music box, twisting and turning to reveal a sumptuous interior that evokes thoughts of Tiffany Lamps, Faberge Eggs, and gold leaf. The audience roars again with even more applause, hypnotized by such whimsy interwoven with such opulence. Within the show’s first five-minutes, we’ve already been won over with what used to be the main ingredient of musical comedy: pure, unadulterated, meteoric joy. How could She Loves Me get any better?
Laura Benanti enters the shop, that’s how.
Ms. Benanti is, without a doubt, the preeminent musical theatre star of our time. Her versatility is nonpareil, especially in how she can navigate that middle ground between comedy and drama. Amalia Balash IS her role, tailor made for her long before she was born or even thought about; dutifully and patiently waiting for her to step into it. One moment she is eccentric, bizarre, inciting laughter in the most unexpected places, mining humor from an intelligent script without ever becoming gimmicky or bastardizing its modest intentions. She can be boisterous and big with her soaring soprano, but also controlled and confident. Fast-forward a scene and she is breaking your heart with her delicate fragility, a tremulous voice, and isinglass eyes that cautiously reveal the warmly lit embers of Amalia’s soul. This is a multilayered performer, with a sharp understanding of comedy and how to play it. This is a rarely utilized attribute in most contemporary musical theatre actresses since musical “comedy” is no longer de rigueur. We are all the more blessed that Ms. Benanti is given a chance to flex these muscles occasionally. The true test of the actress embodying Amalia Balash is in how she galvanizes that comedic ability into her big Second Act tour-de-force that includes “Where’s My Shoe?” and the musical’s most beloved number “Vanilla Ice Cream.” Not only does she hit every note of her music with precision and poise, but she navigates these two impossibly rigorous numbers by vacillating between nervous breakdown and elated hope with emotional dexterity and physical agility.
Benanti is equally matched by actor Zachary Levi as Georg Nowalk. Levi’s last appearance on Broadway was in the short-lived musical First Date, but he is better known to the masses for his starring role on the NBC series Chuck. As Georg, he smartly underplays in the beginning, likable in his reserve, but also commanding the respect of his co-workers with charm and a quiet confidence. Lavished with special attention from Mr. Maraczek, Georg is also humble, easily embarrassed, but also possessing of a slight ego where his salesman skills are concerned. This sets him up perfectly for his downfall when Amalia arrives and first secures a job against his protestations and then quickly moves a new item that he thought customers wouldn’t buy, thus losing a bet with Mr. Maraczek. Georg is now released of his propriety and confidence, and his neurosis wheels begin to turn. Levi is armed with a battery of exasperated expressions, nuanced absurdities, and the occasional twitch that help reveal that Georg is just as idiosyncratic as Amalia. He is the the first in the duo to learn of the reality that his “Dear Friend” is his workplace enemy, and it is in this moment that Levi infuses Georg with palpable fear, manic uncertainty, and just a dash of realization that he just might really be in love his arch nemesis. It’s a nice comedic bouquet he arranges, and his choices help to elevate the character to a far more complex and decidedly perfect match for Amalia. When Georg finally embraces his feelings for her in the musical’s title song, Levi offers a perfect study in how daffish exuberance should play on the stage: with detail and with economy.
She Loves Me has been rounded out with supporting performers who bring talent and style to spare. Jane Krakowski, as the mistreated, slightly addled, clerk Ilona Ritter, is her usual beguiling and playful self. We always know that Krakowski will bring warmth and a coy flirtatiousness to any role she is in, and she does not disappoint here. Her most winning moment is in her clueless and wide-eyed rendition of “A Trip to the Library” that makes one wonder why she has yet to star on Broadway as Miss Adelaide in Guys & Dolls or Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Gavin Creel, as the sexy scumbag womanizer Stephen Kodaly, oozes just enough oily charm to make the audience fall for him the way that Ilona does. When he serenades her with “Ilona”, hips a-sway, he rumbas his way back into her good graces and we witness a very sly villain executed with aplomb. Byron Jennings is an affable Mr. Marazcek, particularly a joy to watch when interacting with Nicholas Barasch’s chipper Arpad. One of the production’s highlights features the charismatic Barasch singing “Try Me”, a lively character song where he tries to convince Mr. Maraczek to promote him. Jennings and Barasch are clearly having fun up there and their playfulness is infectious as Barasch proves his mettle by pretending to sell soap and shampoo to Mr. Maraczek. Michael McGrath, always a reliable character actor, gives the show’s one underwritten role of the klutzy Mr. Sipos an extra boost of adrenaline. He makes the most out of his singular solo number “Perspective” and is always an energetic force throughout. She Loves Me’s biggest scene-stealer is Peter Bartlett as the Headwaiter at the Café Imperiale where the First Act of the show concludes. Bartlett is all things imperious, put-upon, snobby, overworked, exasperated and fussy. His raison d’etre is summed up in the droll “A Romantic Atmosphere”. Watching Bartlett wryly “shush” the frisky patrons and mismanage his incompetent staff with an overwrought visage of resignation is to demonstrate that even one great scene is enough to leave a lasting impression as a actor. It is also nice to see Broadway stalwart Jim Walton on the stage again in a handful of ensemble roles. In fact, the entire ensemble is wonderful, creating a bevy of cartoonish customers, from the the ridiculous to the indecisive, from the frantic to the cringe-worthy. If you’ve worked in retail, you’ll recognize each and every caricatured cliché.
On the design end of things, I have already marveled at the cleverness and magic of David Rockwell’s atmospheric scenery. Donald Holder helps everything glow with his evocatively warm lighting design. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes are tailored and elegant, often stunning (a white coat and hat for Benanti are of particularly exquisite design). Jon Weston does fine work shaping and focusing sound for what has always been a difficult space acoustically. What is particularly apparent in all the aspects is how the designers have really worked in concert, making the show look and feel all of one piece.
There is not much choreography in She Loves Me, but what little there is is provided by Warren Carlyle in his usual effective blend of movement and actual dance. “The Romantic Atmosphere” dance and “Ilona” were particularly fun to watch as Carlyle creates entertaining narratives through movement. The staging of “Grand Knowing You” isn’t a dance per se, but each movement and gesture feels like dance. No one is quite as adept as Carlyle at transitioning seamlessly between movement and all-out dance.
All of this wonder and amazement is, of course, coaxed and coerced flawlessly by director Scott Ellis. Ellis keeps the show at a steady gait, but always knows when to ease back and take a breath for reflection. Ellis, however, has always understood that need for joy in musical comedy, and he paints with it in big, bold strokes emboldened by smaller, intricate flourishes. She Loves Me is his canvas, big enough to show off the larger picture while finding space for myriad little details of perfection. Go. Go now. Drink from this fountain of joy called She Loves Me. Your face will hurt from smiling and you will thank me for it.