Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
McGovern has brought a Midas touch to his work at Artistry. His searing production of Wit two seasons back received an Ivey Award for overall production, and his Follies last spring was a glittering pageant of swanky gowns and snappy banter wrapped around a quartet of broken hearts. To She Loves Me, McGovern wisely brings a lighter touch, as fits this gentle, open-hearted piece, which works not by casting out flares of boisterous song and dance, but by inviting us into the world of its characters and the elegant Budapest parfumerie in which they work, bicker, and fall in love.
After springing to life in 1937 as a play by Hungarian playwright Miklós László called Parfumerie, this tale has been retold on screen in 1940 as The Shop Around the Corner starring James Stewart and Margaret Hamilton, a 1949 MGM musical reset in Chicago with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly (In the Good Old Summertime), and most recently in 1998, with the onset of email, as You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The creators of She Loves Me, which premiered in 1965, kept the show in its original Budapest locate and early 20th century time frame, which casts a glow of old-world tradition and grace over the enterprise.
Two co-workers, Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, who despise each other while on the clock, are unknowingly one another's anonymous pen pal, and have fallen in love through their open-hearted correspondences, each addressed simply to "dear friend." The key narrative thrust follows the foibles of this pair, with Joe Masteroff's book avoiding any pitfalls that would draw attention to the unlikeliness of such a state of affairs, while composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick move the proceedings forward with a collection of wonderful songs, some poignant ("Will He Like Me?," "Dear Friend"), some hopeful ("Tonight at Eight," "I Don't Know His Name") and some euphoric ("Vanilla Ice Cream" and "She Loves Me").
Embroidered around this central plot is the on and off affair between two other shop clerks, Steven Kodaly and Ilona Ritter; Ladislav Sipos, a hard-working clerk whose prime objective is to keep his job; Arpad, a naïve but ambitious delivery boy; and the shop owner, Mr. Maraczek, who waxes nostalgic for his younger days. Bock and Harnick give each of these delightful characters at least one number in which their true natures bloom, every one of them a partnership of engaging melody and witty lyrics. For the full cast there is a splendid opening number in the spritely "Good Morning, Good Day," the faux noir "Romantic Atmosphere," and the galloping, giddy "Twelve Days to Christmas."
At Artistry, every actor on stage breathes heart and soul into these affecting characters. As the leads, Sarah DeYoung (Amalia) and Ryan London Levin (Georg) are a wonderful match. DeYoung's glorious soprano impressed me in Chameleon Theatre's Chess last season, but here I am equally wowed by her comic chops as Amalia faces off against her work-place nemesis, and she handles the tough high notes in Vanilla Ice Cream with a diva's prowess. Levin has played repeatedly in Artistry productions, and keeps getting better, with stunning vocal work in The Last Five Years and a moving non-singing role in last fall's Awake and Sing!. In She Loves Me, he does it allsinging, dancing, mugging, and showering the stage with the range of Georg's emotions, bringing to mind both Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks. When he launches full bore into the show's title song, Levin owns the stage. Each actor gives a top-drawer performance, and together, they bring the icing to this sweet confection that is She Loves Me.
Benjamin Dutcher makes a splendid Kodaly, by turn charming, gregarious, endearing, sneaky and seductive. He has two occasions to shine, "Ilona" and "Grand Knowing You," and scores bullseyes in both. Gracie Anderson is delightful as put-upon Ilona, her heart aglow with warmth, but a rather dim bulb between her ears. Her "I Resolve" is joyfully strident, while she narrates "A Trip to the Library" with droll sincerity. Anderson's voice and movement are in top form, though a tendency to have a Southern drawl when she means to broadcast her sexual allure is a bit of a distraction from Budapest.
T. Mychael Rambo is extremely well cast as Maraczek, performing a delightful "Days Gone By," and persuasively showing the aging merchant's changing moods, from affection to anger to contrition. C. Ryan Shipley does an excellent job as dependable Sipos, and wins the audience with his "Perspective." Michael Conroy brings youthful exuberance and innocence to the role of Arpad, and as the Headwaiter, Wendy Short-Hays, in a gender-swap, makes an officious but wise overseer of the Cafe Imperiale and its "Romantic Atmosphere."
Short-Hayes also choreographs this production, and while She Loves Me is not a dance-heavy show, she has put the cast and small ensemble to good use in the stylized tango at the Cafe Imperiale, and the pandemonium of shoppers as they count down from "Twelve Days to Christmas." Music director Anita Ruth, a stalwart presence at Artistry, once again brings her master's touch conducting a fourteen-member orchestra, drawing out the romance and humor imbedded in the score.
The set design by Rick Polenek is elegant and effective, and Ed Gleeman's costumes capture the essence of early 20th century eastern Europe, particularly the stylish overcoats that seem to make a statement about each character. Lighting and sound design are both spot on.
She Loves Me opened when big, brash musicals were the norm, with How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Oliver! all running, and Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl opening on its heels. Its gentleness and small scale may have been lost in the ballyhoo of the era. It was well received and ran 301 performances, far from a smash but respectable for that time. After that, the show faded from view in the shadow of those mammoth hitsincluding Bock and Harnick's very next show, Fiddler on the Roof. But a small group of fans kept a flame going for She Loves Me, which was further fanned when the original Amalia, Barbara Cook, became a staple in cabarets and concert halls and made "Vanilla Ice Cream" one of her signature performance pieces.
Thankfully, the show has resurfaced in the past few decades, and is now frequently revived at regional and community theaters. Before it closed, the most recent Broadway revival, in 2016, was shown in cinemas and broadcast on PBS, further spreading the news that She Loves Me is a beautiful show that, like mother's chicken soup, warms the heart and can't help but lift a person's spirits. In Artistry's production, it is in talented and loving hands that deliver on all the promise of this lovely visitor from an earlier age of musicals.
She Loves Me, through February 17, 2019, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: Adults: $46.00; Age 62 and up: $41.00; Next Generation (age 30 and under): $15.00. $3.00 discount for adult and senior at Wednesday and Thursday performances. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org.
Music: Jerry Bock; Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick; Book: Joe Masteroff, based on the play Parfumerie by Miklós László; Director: Benjamin McGovern; Choreography: Wendy Shorty-Hays; Music Director: Anita Ruth; Set Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Jeff Brown; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Wig/Hair/Makeup Design: Jess Rau; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Kaeli Melin, Assistant Director: Paran Kashani.
Cast: Gracie Anderson (Ilona Ritter), Elizabeth Cassidy (ensemble), Deidre Cochran (Keller/ ensemble), Michael Conroy (Arpad Laszlo), Sarah DeYong (Amalia Barash), Benjamin Dutcher (Steven Kodaly), Christian B. LaBissoniere (Busboy/ensemble), Ryan London Levin (Georg Nowack), T. Mychael Rambo (Mr. Maraczek), C. Ryan Shipley (Ladislav Sipos), Wendy Short-Hayes (Headwaiter/ensemble).