Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Starting as Parfumerie, a 1937 play by Hungarian Miklos Laszlo, this quaint story has endured decades and endeared global audiences on stage and screen including the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner (starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan), the 1949 film musical The Good Old Summertime (Judy Garland and Van Johnson), and the 1998 hit film You've Got Mail (Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks). The multi-Tony-nominated She Loves Me by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), sandwiched between their famed Fiorello! and Fiddler on the Roof, and with book by Joe Masteroff starred Barbara Cook and Jim Massey in its 1963 premiere. It is currently yet again in previews at New York's Roundabout Theatre Company featuring another current big twosome, Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. Not to be left out of this illustrious parade of productions, Foothill Music Theatre opens its own She Loves Me in a fabulously directed production that leaves no laugh unchuckled, no minute empty or dull, and no character (major or minor) without a chance to shine forth with memorable personality.
As the summer season passes in 1934 Budapest, all is going well for the Maraczek's Parfumerie star clerk Georg Nowack (clearly the favorite of the congenial owner, Mr. Maraczek) until she arrivesthe rapidly talking, pleasant-looking, but oh-so pushy Amalia Balash. She spontaneously steps in (still un-hired) to sell to a rather portly lady a leather cigarette box that also plays music, convincing her that the box is actually for candy and spritely singing that its enclosed tune is "like the voice of God" ... (warning) "No More Candy." Given that Georg has just bet Mr. Maraczek that no one would buy the stupid boxes, Amalia becomes the new shop's star and Georg's instant rival. Michael Doppe and Jessica Whittemore send zingers aplenty each other's way as Georg and Amalia. He tends to be shy, occasionally letting his dimples show in big smiles with his other clerk pals and often scowling and pouting when Amalia flutters about as if now owning the place. The rivalry intensifies as Christmas comes and peaks to a hilarious and frenzied height when, at one point, he arrives at her apartment actually intending to be nice while she is in bed feeling poorly. She misinterprets his being there to spy on her and get her fired for playing hooky. As she tries to dress and he tries to get her back into her sick bed, the two duel in duet in "Where's My Shoe" while clothes, scarves, shoes, and bodies fly about the room, over the bed, and on the floor with split-second accuracy.
All the while, each of the two at war is also writing letters to an unnamed, unseen friend, singing a series of heart-felt songs as the seasons pass from summer to winter, "pouring out my hopes and dreams to you ,,, oh dear friend." Amalia wonders in notes floating from her soprano voice, "Will He Like Me?" Later, when Georg first figures out and eagerly accepts that Amalia is actually the one for him, Mr. Doppe receives the night's longest and biggest applause for an ecstatic "She Loves Me," while taking lessons from Gene Kelley as he hops, jumps, tumbles, and dances up and down the street in front of the parfumerie.
Surrounding the two unlikely yet would-be lovers is a whole cast of wonderful stock characters, each a treasure to get to know. With a heart as big as his rotund body, John Rinaldi is the delightful Mr. Sipos, whose defining guidelines for life unfold in "Philosophy." "Here's my rule, never disagree ... Excuse me while I genuflect." Always in knickers and on his bike, Arpad Laszlo (Anthony Stephens) is the teenage delivery boy bucking with much charm for a promotion ("Try Me"). Stephens uses his enthusiastic facial expressions, his eyes that pop with joy, and two eyebrows that almost speak aloud their messages to convince all of his inherent merits.
The tall, sexy, savvy Ms. Ritter (Morgan Dayley) is determined to find her own Mr. Right ("I Resolve") and recounts in rapid-fire lyrics and with contagious energy about "A Trip to the Library" where she has found him. She has first, however, had to ward off the advances and endure the nightly no-shows of fellow clerk Mr. Kodaly (the talented Nick Rodrigues), a suave playboy always on the make and with an ego and narcissism to match his good looks. Mr. Rodrigues particularly scores in his "Good Knowing You," as he trills in light falsetto phrases melodious tones that belie his snotty messages to each and all as he leaves, ignominiously fired from their midst. Heading up this quirky family is George Mauro as a dapper Mr. Maraczek, who, while dancing on light feet, reminisces to Georg of "Days Gone By" when he was singlea condition the philandering Mr. Kodaly will ensure he relives.
Director Milissa Carey guarantees each member of the main cast of seventeen and the supporting ensemble of eleven gets one to several moments to be a star. Hayley Lovgren, Kimberly Cohan, and Mrigendra Steiner join the store's male clerks in "Sounds While Selling," as exquisitely timed, overheard words and phases from clerk-customer pairings lead to side-tickling phrases like "I would like ... an eyebrow ... under ... my chin." Shoppers Kimberly Kay and Lydia Cuffman join members of the ensemble and all clerks for an increasingly rousing, frenetic, and stage-filling "Twelve Days of Christmas" as carolers count down the shopping days left and customers first politely and later with fists and fury snap up those last-minute purchases.
But Ms. Carey's triumph of the night is a scene in the Cafe Imperiale in which tables of beautifully attired lovers while away the night under the watchful and steely eyes of a pompous, pious Headwaiter (Nick Mandracchia). The tall, debonair maître d' comes totally undone when Peter Mandel as a clumsy but adoring busboy disrupts the sedate atmosphere with falling, clanging trayssomething happening not once but several times. That is the first of several volcanic occurrences that erupt as the Headwaiter tries to describe in rich baritone, "A Romantic Atmosphere." Heather Mitchell and Jerry Rosas' tango is in full sensuous, dramatic style while chaos begins to ensue.
The fun of the evening is accentuated by Kua-Hao Lo's rotating, colorful set whose changes occur magically and quickly. The number of lush and detailed period costumes that change to match the rapidly changing seasons and settings are a triumph for B. Modern. Choreography plays a big part in the fun and energy of this production, and Morgan Dayley and Nicole Helfer have created coordinated steps and rhythms that work for individuals, twosomes, and a stage full of moving people in all directions. The seven-piece orchestra under Dolores Duran-Cefalu's direction beautifully supports and never overshadows the musical's many numbers.
But the musical director has made what seems to me one major error in her directing this cast of good, solid singers, who all sound pleasant enough when not over-singing, but none is a standout. Almost to a person, each at some point tries to belt climactic (usually higher in the musical range) notes that move them clearly out of their "beauty box" into something bordering on flat and clearly overdone. This is particularly true for Ms. Dayley as Ilona Ritter, whose voice too often goes from a pleasing soprano with nice lift and flow to a piercing voice with much too much edge and volume. For all these, I believe proper direction to hold back just a tad could make a huge difference.
But that aside, Foothill Music Theatre, Melissa Carey, and this large ensemble of actors and production staff have teamed together for yet one more in a long stream of furiously fun renderings of She Loves Me. There is no way anyone will leave a visit to Maraczek's Parfumerie without a huge departing smile.
She Loves Me continues through March 6, 2016, at Foothill Music Theatre, Lohman Theatre Foothill College (I-280 at El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills). Tickets are available online at www.foothillmusicals.com or by calling 650-949-7360.