Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
One of my favorite overtures has just been played beautifully with spunk and spirit by the fourteen-person orchestra under the musical direction of Joseph Kelly as the South Bay Musical Theatre kicks off a fabulously conceived and executed She Loves Me. The multi-Tony-nominated 1963 musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Joe Masteroff (book) started as the 1937 play Parfumerie by Hungarian Miklós Lázló and was the basis for several well-known movies, The Shop Around the Corner in 1940, You've Got Mail in 1988, and the Judy Garland/Van Johnson musical film in 1949, The Good Old Summertime.
And why shouldn't the premise not be so popular through the years? All it takes is a simple storyline about two of the most unlikely people falling hopelessly in love to endure forever. Take two store clerks, Amalia and Georg, who outwardly despise each other, quarreling constantly to the dismay of their co-workers in an upscale Budapest shop. Each is quite the romantic, with a secret pen pal and already in love with that someone never met. Both are in for a huge surprise when the cat is finally out of the bag that their biggest irritant in life is also their sought-after mate for life.
South Bay Musical Theatre has assembled a cast of twenty-one that to a person, under the evidently carefully tutored and guided direction of Martin Rojas Dietrich, is able to create delightful personalities that are uniquely memorable upon exiting the theatre, even those appearing in a variety of ensemble roles. Every aspect of the production is first class and big-smile producing. Vocally, lead individuals and ensemble members alike reign supreme throughout.
As the story opens in the summer of 1934, all is going well for the Maraczek's Parfumerie star clerk Georg Nowack (clearly the favorite of the congenial owner, Mr. Maraczek) until she arrives looking for a job: the rapidly talking, smartly dressed, but oh-so-pushy Amalia Balash. Not yet hired, she spontaneously begins with a non-stop pitch in order to sell to an open-mouthed, astonished lady a leather cigarette box that also plays music. Breathlessly convincing her that the box is actually for candy, Marie Finch spritely sings a duet with the tinkling box itself, concluding its music is "like the voice of God" to warn its lucky, sweet-toothed owner of the song's title: "No More Candy."
Given that Georg has just bet Mr. Maraczek "ten and six" that no one would buy the stupid boxes, Amalia becomes the new shop's star and Georg's instant rival. Benjamin Hatch's Georg increasingly scowls and pouts as Amalia flutters about as if now owning the place, with the two hardly missing a chance to send verbal and non-verbal zingers each other's way every chance they get. And all the while, each is also writing letters to an unnamed, unseen friend, singing a series of heart-felt songs as the seasons pass from summer to winter (the latter hilariously noted by sudden-falling leaves and snow in the corners of the stage). Georg sings longingly with starry eyes in "Three Letters" about "pouring out my hopes and dreams to you oh, dear friend," while Amalia sends out her own "Dear Friend" missive, later wondering in song, "Will He Like Me?" Marie Finch both times sings in an intense, near-operatic soprano that cannot help but remind me of the great singers like Jeanette MacDonald of the 1930s screen musicals.
When the two decide finally to meet, Benjamin Hatch is a one-man comedy show as his Georg switches between excited hope, frenetic panic, and total insecurity as he sings of the rendezvous "Tonight at 8." Marie Finch has her own chances to demonstrate great comedic flair when Amalia misinterprets a surprise visit by Georg to her apartment, thinking he has come to fire her for being late, when instead he is there to offer solace and ice cream because she is sick. In "Where's My Shoe?," the two duet in a room-demolishing duel as she tries to dress and he tries to put her back to bed. Once he is gone, Ms. Finch's Amalia hilariously alternates between another heartfelt letter to her pen pal and a bubbly, spirited pitter-patter about how nice it was for Georg to bring her ice cream, ending "Vanilla Ice Cream" standing on her bed in a nightgown as if she is in an evening gown on an opera stage ending an aria.
Surrounding the two unlikely yet would-be lovers is a cast of wonderful stock characters, each a treasure to get to know. Stephen Sammonds is the often background, silent, but always observing fellow store clerk Ladislav Sipos whose continuously shifting facial expressions are a show unto themselves. Sipos' defining guidelines for life are always to be unseen and unnoticed, as capitally delivered by Mr. Sammonds in "Perspective," his Sipos opining of himself, "Always humble, not an ounce of self-respect ... 'Scuse me while I genuflect."
In knickers, sweater vest, and on his treasured red bike, Arpad Laszlo is a teenage delivery boy instantly likeable and with much natural charm who is bucking Mr. Maraczek for a promotion ("Try Me"). With an animated style accompanied by pantomimed, illustrative movements, recent high school graduate Parker Hough as Arpad quickly establishes himself as one of the evening's best voices among many fine ones.
The latest-styled and sometimes flirty clerk Ilona Ritter is, like Georg and Amalia, also seeking someone for love (but in her case, also for lust). Jessica Whittemore brings another gangbuster voice to the stage, varying in "I Resolve" her sung styles and tones to make her case to find her Mr. Right. Her crisply clear and full-of-life vocals flow with ease through the rapidly paced and funny lyrics of "A Trip to the Library," where she meets someone she quickly decides is the man she only has eyes foran optometrist named Paul.
But Ilona first has to ward off the advances and endure the nightly no-show dates of fellow clerk Steven Kodaly. Carlos A. Nunez Carillo is the suave but slimy, smooth-talking, playboy clerk who is always on the make and has an ego and narcissism fully to match the good looks he so knows he has. His Kodaly particularly scores in "Grand Knowing You," as the fired clerk sweetly sings melodious tones that belie his snotty messages to each and all as he makes his grand exit.
Heading up this quirky family is Michael Johnson as the congenial, big-hearted shop owner and boss, Mr. Maraczek. His large, expressive voice reminisces to Georg of "Days Gone By" when Maraczek was single and could dance lightly around the ballroomsomething he splendidly proceeds to do with Georg in the store itself.
Director Dietrich uses split-second accuracy in ensuring a number of scenes have laugh-out-loud effects. Shoppers join the store's clerks in "Sounds While Selling," in which three over-lapping, sung sales pitches are heard by us as connected phrases: "I would like to see ... a face like yours ....cracked" or "You may want to dye ... your hangnails," just to illustrate a couple of many. A store- and stage-filling flock of shoppers and clerks become increasingly fraught and frenzied as carolers count down the shopping days, singing "Twelve Days to Christmas," with customers at first politely and later with fists and fury snapping up those last-minute purchases.
But Martin Rojas Dietrich's directorial triumph of the evening (aided of course by the choreography of Jillian Toby-Cummings) is a showstopping scene in the Caf Imperiale in which tables of evening-dressed lovers while away the night under the watchful eyes of a meticulously mannered Maitre D' (Don Nguyen). The overseeing guard of the evening's tranquility comes undone when Ethan Glasman as a tragedy-prone, tripping and stumbling (but totally adoring) Busboy disrupts the sedate atmosphere with his multiple trips and falls, resulting in clanging trays and assorted ways of ending up in the middle of romantically dancing couples. These volcanic, increasingly funny eruptions occur as Mr. Glasman's Maitre D' tries to describe in song, "A Romantic Atmosphere." When Mr. Nguyen performs in the midst of the crooning an act one might see in Cirque du Soleil, it is difficult to conceive how the side-splitting scene could be any better or funnier.
The evening is made all the better by a stellar creative team. Large, cut-out set pieces waltz seamlessly to the music of the orchestra to turn from the street scenes outside the shop to the fully decked shelves and beautifully framed windows of the insidejust a part of Brett Carlson's impressive scenic design enhanced in numerous ways by the hundreds of properties designed by Miranda Whipple. Seasons and exteriors/interiors come to full life via the lighting design of Rick Amerson and Ed Hunter while the unseen orchestra and the wonderfully enunciated lyrics of the cast never conflict with each other as part of the mastery of sound co-designers Dan Singletary and Chris Willmore. A special round of kudos go to costume designer Y. Sharon Peng who must have raided every known Bay Area storehouse of 1930s winter coatsplush and furry allas well as the hats, shoes, dresses and suits that would have been seen on the streets of well-to-do Budapest several generations past.
Although She Loves Me has been seen in other productions in the Bay Area in the past few years (all that I have seen have been furiously fun and fulfilling), South Bay Musical Theatre has succeeded in producing a show that certainly takes its place among the best of the She Loves Mes and one that begs to be seen and thoroughly enjoyed by both the first-timer and fifth-or-sixth timer (as am I).
She Loves Me runs through February 15, 2020, presented by South Bay Musical Theatre at the Saratoga Civic Theatre, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.southbaymt.com or call 408-266-4734, 24 hours a day.