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A lovely She Loves Me
Review by Rob Lester

2016 Broadway Revival Cast

Ghostlight Records

What's not to love about She Loves Me? It has been one of my go-to cast album listening binges, mostly with the original 1963 cast album, but also other versions of this truly delectable score as well. I also coveted any and all versions of any and all of the individual songs when recorded by other artists—such as Barbra Streisand's "Will He Like Me?"—although such sightings were few-and-far-between events with the exception of the ebullient title song. But that's a frustration for another time, wondering how a musical with so many truly terrific and well-crafted numbers has rarely been represented on cover recordings. What we have now is a feast with this just released new Broadway Cast Revival CD. The characters are very well cast, without slavishly copying those who have played these roles before. Under Scott Ellis' direction, they sing with great conviction—and also great diction. We hear every word and every syllable crisply.

This is a respectful version, not really breaking new ground, but that's just fine in this case. The sound is just superb and the orchestra really pops. One can relish the work of the caring conducting veteran Paul Gemignani and wonderfully detailed orchestrations of Larry Hochman. The Jerry Bock melodies that cozy up to your ear and take up residence, probably for a lifetime, are even more appreciated when heard in instrumental segments, such as little section reprising that delightful tune called "No More Candy," the piece that accompanies the sales pitch for a music box, after the vocal by Laura Benanti, as Amalia, is heard.

Benanti is pure pleasure. If she isn't quite as innocent-sounding as others who have played the role, her soprano serves the music marvelously and when she takes little moments to give us a hint of the character's feistiness, it rounds out the character. The very few spoken moments she has also reveal nuances that are impactful. For example, in the scene where she is told that it is closing time at the cafe where she has been waiting in vain for her mystery Dear Friend and she replies, "So soon?" knowing that she has to finally abandon hope, it is heartbreaking. Even knowing the show inside out, I get so wrapped up in her well-drawn emotions that I come surprisingly close to the edge of my seat, as if I were wondering and hoping along with her that the date she has imagined will show up. Her Amalia has vulnerability without being wimpy or vapid. It's a joy to hear the full blossom of her legit sound caressing these lovely melodies, with some vibrato that adds to the ache and operetta-suggesting quaintness. While doing so, she also imbues the Sheldon Harnick lyrics with many shades of emotions.

As her oil-and-water relationship at work and her unsuspecting/unsuspected pen pal, Zachary Levi (who had another Broadway Blind Date in a more pop vein) makes a winning and likeable Georg. In fact, I find him warmer and sweeter than some others who have sung it. That's a good thing. We want to enjoy the squabbling of the central couple, but not have our sympathies overly slanted toward the lady. His voice is bright and his takes on the songs are fresh and lively. His rendition of the title song and its bursting-with-surprised-joy mindset does not disappoint.

The always energetically charismatic Gavin Creel, who bites into his role of smarmy, self-loving Steven Kodaly, is fun and a half. He doesn't go for broke to play it over the top throughout, which might disappoint some who want this played to the hilt, but the calibrated performance choosing when to get big is intriguing; I guess all things accounted for, he makes this self-appointed ladies' man arguably more realistic. The needed tension is there and so is the comedy and contrast to the other gents. Michael McGrath, that reliably solid 14-karat singing comic, finds his own way with the ultra-cautious, self-effacing fellow employee Sipos. His solo, "Perspective," about always agreeing with what the boss wants in order to keep your job at any cost (including self-respect) is a kind of musical theatre cousin to a similar wage slave in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, advocating towing the line "The Company Way."

The boss in question, the head honcho at the perfumery where all these folks work, is played by Byron Jennings. He is perhaps not as imposing as one might wish in order to get the full impact on the power wielded, and somehow to my ears he sounds younger and more relaxed than one would expect. His impact is not especially intense and his "Days Gone By" goes by without the heart-tugging wistfulness, but one still can't resist this lilting melody, reinforced in the Entr'Acte. Oh, if only there were more instrumental versions and at greater length! A new CD of instrumentals would have been a way to fully embrace and appreciate Bock's standout work; meanwhile, I'm motivated to dig out an old vinyl album featuring Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra that took the cue back in the era of She Loves Me's initial influence.

Jane Krakowski is a quirky Ilona—appropriately so—and adds a spicy energy to the lusty character and her interactions. Her "A Trip to the Library" finds signs of welcome wistfulness and is not simply played for laughs. Although there can't be much aural evidence on disc of her assertiveness in trying to resist or pursue the snake-like maneuverings of Creel's conniving character, somehow the little we get goes a long way.

Peter Bartlett finds new comic juiciness as the maitre d' maintaining "A Romantic Atmosphere," despite an uphill battle with a noisy wait staff. Thankfully, he is not so prissy and snooty as to be insufferable or one note. A major highlight of this recording comes from the endearing performance of young Nicholas Barasch who brims with star quality energy. As the messenger who wants to be a clerk and part of the team, not "the kid," his boundless vim and vigor are totally convincing and totally charming. When he gets his big act two moment, "Try Me," it makes me smile. When he gets to the line where he gamely offers, "I'd even grow a mustache," it's the cherry on top of a cute sundae.

Speaking of desserts, "Vanilla Ice Cream," sung by Miss Benanti, gets high marks not just for her high C, but also for her high spirits and the way it puts the spotlight on the developing relationship between Amalia and Georg.

But virtually every number here really works as a stand-alone standout, as so many of these items are self-contained, thoroughly satisfying song-scenes that have beginnings, middles and ends as character-driven explanations of feelings or mini-stories. They are economically constructed and really terrific pieces for actors to bring off and showcase. Even the sung portions of correspondence become candidates as strong highlights; if you know the score you anticipate each of these gems and don't get restless even though it's a longer score. (The original cast album was a 2-LP set, a rarity in the 1960s.) There's no "filler" and everything works and feels wonderfully necessary. There's no slam-bam big production number for toe-tapping or sing-along surefire hit fodder as many shows of yore—a refreshing breath of sincerity and sticking to the "romantic atmosphere" established. The score and the way it is treated here recalls the hit-stuffed Annie Get Your Gun or Follies in the way that there are no loose or unnecessary or dull threads in the tightly woven tapestry. Therefore, I could go on and on and name virtually every one of the 26 tracks. But no need. It is worth pointing out, however, that the ensemble serving as the customers served adds a lot to the enjoyment because the group doesn't sounds simply generic and anonymous. These folks have personality and their one-stop shopping escapades are entertaining and humorous, making us sympathetic to the plight of clerks who must act as if the customer is always right.

A major shout-out to the orchestra for its vibrant and attentive playing of what is in some ways a delicate score, at least in its more gentle and innocent moods, and when the time comes for brashness and fireworks, they are on the ball there, too. There are 22 musicians on the recording, with a very large string section, but playing is crisp with no mush factor. Some players are on more than one instrument which gives us the fuller, varied sound—we get accordion, flugelhorn, and harp as well as the more typical instruments. The recording is well produced by Ghostlight Records' founder Kurt Deutsch and there's a booklet with many large full-color photos, far more than most inserts. So we see the cast up close as well as shots that include David Rockwell's set designs.

This is a happy, happy listening experience from the "Overture" to the "Bows"; the song about yuletide shopping. "12 Days to Christmas" near the end makes me sort of wish there really were 12 days to Christmas now instead of being where we are, in the dog days of summer, because I can't think of a more likely candidate to put on the gift list of all of your theatre-loving friends this year.

PS: Although the revival has closed, New Yorkers have a chance for a live re-visit to this banquet with a few in-person sound bites when the two leading ladies and other cast members, along with the show's master lyricist, celebrate the CD's release at Barnes & Noble on Lexington Avenue and East 86 Street on August 3 at 7 pm.

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