Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 17, 2016
She Loves Me Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Based on a play by Miklós László. Directed by Scott Ellis. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Music Direction by Paul Gemignani. Set design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Jeff Mahshie. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Jon Weston. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Dance arrangements and incidental music by David Krane. Hair and wig design by David Brian Brown. Make-up design by Christian McCulloch. Cast: Laura Benanti, Zachary Levin, Gavin Creel, Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, and Jane Krakowski, Peter Bartlett, with Nicholas Barasch, Cameron Adams, Justin Bowen, Preston Truman Boyd, Alison Cimmet, Benjamin Eakeley, Sara Edwards, Michael Fatica, Gina Ferrall, Jenifer Foote, Andrew Kober, Laura Shoop, Jim Walton
The latter, at least, was not necessarily a given, regardless of how good this 1963 show by Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music), and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) might be. The story, after all, only gets more familiar (more tired?) with time, as it's based on the same Miklós László play that resulted in the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner and the 1998 updated rom-com You've Got Mail. And, more worryingly, this mounting's director, Scott Ellis, has already drawn from this well, with a well-regarded 1993 revival also for Roundabout. Did he need to go there again? For that matter, did anyone?
Regardless of how you answer those questions, this She Loves Me is pure sterling, and erases any lingering doubts or cynicism. There's not a thing that's tired or overly tested here, and Ellis has approached the material with the sparkling eye and the mischievous nature of a man who has plenty to say about what he's doing. And for the most part the cast, led by Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti, is so in step with him and his candy-coated worldview, it's all but impossible to tell they're not creating their characters from scratch.
Levi and Benanti play the two foremost lovers, Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, who, of course, don't start out that way. He's the assistant manager at Maraczek's Parfumerie, she's the new clerk there with whom he gets off on the wrong foot from the first moment. They know they're irritated by each other; what they don't know, however, is that they've been corresponding for weeks via lonely-hearts classifieds and have kindled a passionate epistolary romance, sight completely unseen. How can they ever come together when their work life is one big shouting match? How indeed.
The creators' magic is that they've woven all these subplots and characters into a single swirling celebration of love and devotion without losing focus on any of them. You care just as much about whether Ilona will dump the cad Kodaly and proclaim her emotional independence as you do whether Georg and Amalia will uniteand, for that matter, whether Arpad and Maraczek fulfill their own desires. And though there's only one scene set at the moody Café Imperial, where Georg and Amalia are supposed to be unmasked to each other, you become invested in whether its plummy headwaiter (a delightful Peter Bartlett) and his balletic busboy (Michael Fatica) obtain the "romantic atmosphere" they seek.
Although Masteroff's book blends the lighthearted and the serious with unusual facility (the threat of existential loneliness is omnipresent, and at times events grow darker still), the songs do still more to kindle the proper everyday enchantment. From early-morning small talk and workday montages to lush expressions of apprehension (one each for Georg and Amalia, "Tonight at Eight" and "I Don't Know His Name") and despondency (Amalia's shattering "Dear Friend") to rhapsodic explosions of excitement (the title song for Georg, "Ice Cream" for Amalia), and even thoughtful comic odes ("Ilona," the warmly bewildered "A Trip to the Library"), this is a score that pays lyrical tribute to everything that makes these people who they are and who they want to be.
Ellis has ensured that it all flows gracefully and comfortingly, and that the essential wounded humanity that makes every person and plot point so relatable is always on full view. He's amplified the wonderment, as well, with the help of David Rockwell's picture-postcard set, Jeff Mahshie's Technicolor costumes, and Donald Holder's playful lights, which contribute greatly to the sense of this being a fairy tale brought to life.
So, too, do the actors. Levi, a stage natural whose only previous Broadway musical appearance was First Date in 2014, is superb, using his tall, lanky physique to imbue Georg with an endearing awkwardness that can melt into nuclear ebullience as he grows in confidence; combined with his killer comic timing and handsomely reedy singing voice, it's a performance that's as suffused with joy as any I've seen on Broadway in years. If Benanti reads a shade too sophisticated for Amalia, she's otherwise excellent and nearly Levi's equal, with a cunning way with barbs and dolor alike, and a glorious soprano that more than lives up to that of the role's originator, Barbara Cook.
Hardly less impressive are Krakowski, who brings an appealingly wry and in-control vibe (and amazing dance chops) to Ilona; Jennings, who presents a compelling vision of Maraczek's well-meaning confliction; McGrath as a likable and clear-eyed Sipos; and Barasch, who never overdoes overeager as Arpad. But even performers in tiny, doubling-as-chorus roles, such as Jim Walton as a private investigator and Gina Ferrall as a picky shopper, shine just as brightly (and get to take center stage, or something close to it, in the frothingly funny "Twelve Days to Christmas").
Not everything here is at the same exalted level. Creel does not project the imperious, hyperstuffed personality or wield the ceiling-sweeping voice that Kodaly requires (Jack Cassidy and Howard McGillin played the role in the show's previous Broadway runs). Warren Carlyle sometimes mistakes busyness for appropriateness in his choreography, which muddies the waters a bit during the café scene and Creel and Krakowski's "Ilona" pas de deux. And the new, cut-down orchestrations, though serviceable, are not a patch on Don Walker's sumptuous original charts.
But given how well everything else works, too much nitpicking seems counterproductive. This show, though delicate, is hardly fragile; it can survive a few minor missteps provided its heart and soul remain intact. Ellis and his company have seen to it that they are here, and for the two and a half hours you spend on this journey with them, little else matters. Bathing in perfection is its own reward most of the time; with this She Loves Me, you'll be thrilled at the prospect of drowning in it, time and time again.