This romantic musical comedy traces its beginnings to Hungarian Miklos Laszlo's 1937 play, Parfumerie. American film adaptations followed, the latest being the 1998 hit, You've got Mail. The musical retains much of Laszlo's original old-world charm and is beloved for Bock's lush score, Harnick's character-driven book and Masteroff's clever lyrics.
Set in Maraczek's Parfumerie in a European city of the 1930s, She Loves Me tells the story of two young sales clerks who can't abide each other at work, but who are falling in love, unknowingly, by letter. Georg and Amalia each write incognito to a "Dear Friend," a connection forged through a lonely hearts column. This secret love sustains each of them in their working-class lives, but trouble comes when they arrange a first meeting at a romantic nightspot, the Café Imperiale.
Director John Stephany-Miller has assembled an excellent cast. They are backed by Andrew Cooke's nine-piece orchestra that plays unseen behind a scrim of scenery. With the orchestra behind them, the actors are all miked for voice amplification, but the microphones are discreet and sound designer Scott Edward's calibrates the amplification to sound natural. Apart from expert casting, Stephany-Miller invited master ballet dancer and choreographer James Sewell, artistic director of Sewell Ballet, to choreograph the play, a stroke of genius. Sewell's breathtaking flair creates a scene of spoofy wooing and a hilariously precise form of mayhem that is to die for in the pretentious Café Imperiale scene.
Engaging Lee Mark Nelson as Georg is not a great singer; he struggles to hold the big notes at the end of songs. Yet, curiously, this shortcoming works in his favor. Georg is an ordinary fellow, a shy romantic with a receding hairline; he is attractive in a safe sort of way. The fact that Nelson quavers on the big notes adds to his character's ordinariness. Nelson's true strength is the marvelous physicality he brings to Georg. In the song "Tonight at Eight," Nelson expresses Georg's extreme anxiety about meeting his Dear Friend through jittery, battery-packed action that makes him seem sprung from both feet and bottom.
For all his quiet charm, Georg is harsh to Garrett Long's feisty Amalia in the perfume shop. Amalia comes looking for a job, and Georg attempts to hustle her out, but she demonstrates her sales skills to Mr. Maraczek by selling a customer a music box that she doesn't really want. And she can can dosh out gall every bit as well as Georg. Long sings in a clear soprano and loads Amalia with personality. Two of her finest songs are "I Don't Know His Name" and "Vanilla Ice Cream."
This cast of some 23 is rich with talent. Christopher Carl's suave Steven Kodaly has the handsome looks of a 1940s matinee idol. Kodaly is more in love with his gorgeous self than the women he seduces. Carl has amusing theatrical moments as Kodaly re-seduces his hapless girlfriend in the number "Ilona," and in his exit, "Grand Knowing You." Shanara Gabrielle has a big, brassy voice that suits street-tough Ilona. Her most touching song is "A Trip to The Library."
Mark Rosenwinkel excels as accommodating clerk, Ladislav. Steve Shaffer captures Mr. Maraczek's quiet desperation. Jason Tam fills delivery boy Arpad with ambition and exuberance. Best of all is baritone Bradley Greenwald's hilarious Headwaiter - a Fawlty Towers Basil to Brian Sostek's cowering, Manuel-like Busboy.
Linda Talcott Lee and Tony Vierling burlesque tango dancers with stunning skill, three café musicians play European gypsy tunes and many of the ensemble singers are fine enough to be leads. So much to extol.
Stephany-Miller collaborates, again, with set designer James Youmans. For my taste, the stylized realism of the multiple sets amount to the over-production that I did not care for in their The Night of the Iguana. But this is a critic's subjective nit-picking. So, in conclusion, Dear Friend, treat yourself to a delectable evening of love and laughter at the Guthrie's She Loves Me.
She Loves Me May 7 - June 12, 2005. Fridays 7:00 p.m. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees and on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call for dates. Tickets $19 - $54. Guthrie Theater, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224, Toll Free 877 44 STAGE, or at www.guthrietheater.org.