She Loves Me, book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, music by Jerry Bock, based on a play by Miklos Laszlo. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Call me fool, thatís all right with me. Hereís my rule: never disagree."
Itís been a decade or more since Iíve seen a production of the 1963 musical "She Loves Me" and Iíve missed it. I saw the original on Broadway with Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy and Barbara Baxley and I loved it. I saw it in summer stock twice and never got around to the New York revival a few years back. But having lost track of this show, I now feel firmly back on the right track and have discovered that the show is funnier than I remembered, less sentimental and more romantic, more musically intricate and, on stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, even more singable. Perhaps Iím just older and feeling that loss of youth that George Nowack, the showís hero, feels in this edition. Perhaps not.
Brooks Ashmanskas is not the hero type. His hairline is receding, his chin is developing a little friend, his body has the shape of a bosc pear with a belly. The romantic hero, the delectable young man is not evident in his person or his performance, but his delicious thrill at discovering love is done with the exuberance of restored youth and vigor and, coming midway through the second act in the title song, is almost delectable enough to be considered silly in such a mature man. It isnít silly, however; itís perfect.
Sometimes considered a "Christmas" musical because it ends on Christmas eve, this is not just a holiday confection. It covers six months in the lives of George and Amalia Balash, the new clerk in the shop he manages, a parfumerie in Budapest in 1934. They meet in June, unaware that they already know a great deal about one another. They spark and the heat they generate engulfs them in all the wrong ways. It takes until early December for that fire to subside and for the true warmth engendered by that deeper recognition to begin to emerge.
At the same time two other fires, two passions, are consuming other members of the staff at the shop: Ilona Ritter and her lover Steven Kodaly are engaged in a struggle over their relationship and Mr. Maraczek is losing his grip on the love of his life. All three stories become mixed and confused and not even the first-rate assistance of Ladislav Sipos, a fine clerk with a special pacifistís philosophy can set things easily aright.
The original play had been successfully filmed twice before this show emerged: "The Shop Around the Corner" with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in the 1930s and "In the Good Old Summertime" with Judy Garland and Van Johnson in the 1940's. There was no special need for a stage musical, but when this show opened, there was a great need for a sentimental throwback to former days. The country was engaged in the final struggles of the Vietnam war; the communist threat was at our doorway again; people were concerned about the future as they hadnít been since the end of World War II. There was a need for sentiment and heart and humanity finding its core, locating the belief that love could set things in motion for good. That was the strength of this show, and even though it did not collect the audience it needed to be a great success, it found its place and created its cult. It opened during a newspaper strike and very few reviews, or ads, could ever be found for it. It was defeated by its era, but it still maintains its optimism and its sense of that importance of love. It is right on target for today.
The new production boasts the funniest staging of a musical numberís dance break I have ever seen and choreographer Denis Jones is to be lauded for his work here in the "Romantic Atmosphere" number near the end of Act One. It was brilliant. Even though the number that should follow it was cut down to the musical response, and I obviously missed it, the dance is almost enough to compensate for this one small indiscretion.
As Amalia Balash, director Nicholas Martin has cast a very tall woman named Kate Baldwin. She has a remarkable voice and a face that can be pretty, can be frightening, can be many things expressive. Her performance is refreshing. Like Ashmanskas she is not the traditional romantic heroine, yet she manages to make us love her and root for her on her quest to find the man sheíll love for the rest of her life.
Mark Nelson is a wonderful Sipos, charming and angular in his appearance and movements. While trying not to stand out, he inevitably does. His solo, "Perspective," says everything about him and he makes it seem as though the words are his very own. His young friend and compatriot, Arpad is played with enormous physical mirth by Jeremy Beck who truly shines in the second act opening number. Kodaly, the handsome cad, is played by Troy Britton Johnson. He makes an impression instantly and really comes into his own at his exit from the show with a number that he makes his personal possession.
Jessica Stone is a sensational Ilona. Whether exposing a shapely body under a Klimt pattern dress, or singing one of several comic songs with verve and vitality, she is a focus point on the large stage in Williamstown. Even in ensemble musical numbers she is where you look. Like many more contemporary musicals (like "Spelling Bee") where a recurring musical theme is repeated many times, this show has its credo piece and she is always a performer in that piece. Whether a quintet, quartet or trio, Ilona is the one you watch in this little song. So, to Stone I say "Thank you, Madame, please call again..." Here is an actress whose work I hope to see again, and often.
Mark Victor and Jason Babinsky provide the heartiest laughs in their number at the Cafť Imperiale and in this era of no encores it pains me to say there is only one shot at watching them perform together. Dick Latessa brings both charm and experience to Maraczek and does what the role suggests. He might have been darker in spots, which would have been all right, too.
Nicholas Martin has found all sorts of nuances and points of interest in this play and he has given the show a new sense of itself. Subsequent years, including 1963 with the first production of Kander and Ebbís "Cabaret" have given to the early 1930s in Europe the overwhelming sense of the growth of National Socialism and its aftermath - the Nazi takeover of that portion of the world. In this show we have the final vestige of the beauty, grace and waltzing times in central Europe before the Naziís removed sentiment, love and beauty from the horizon. Martin has carefully avoided all of the bad things that could so easily be inserted into this show, the tiny hints that could mark it, set its sentiment into direct conflict with political changes. He has opted for the grace of this period before its coming autumn. He leads us through summer, fall and early winter, providing only satisfying conclusions to all problems.
He has done it with the aid of a candy-box set by Jim Noone, costumes that reek of the romance of days gone by designed by Robert Morgan and subtle lighting by Kenneth Posner and Philip Rosenberg.
Charlie Alterman leads a theater orchestra of thirteen players through the intricacies of this deceptive score. There is little here that is as simple as it seems. Bock and Harnick created a jewel in this almost through-composed piece with its counterpoints and its tuneful songs.
Go for the love that is here. Go for the humor. Go because you must see what a true classic of the American musical theater can be when it is handled with insight, with respect and with the perspective, as Sipos would say, of distance. If I could, Iíd go back and see it again. In a way, I just did.
Jason Babinsky and Ensemble in a "Romantic Atmosphere"; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Dick Latessa watches Jessica Stone teach Brooks Ashmanskas to dance: photo: T. Charles Erickson
"But where are you, Dear Friend?" wonders Kate Baldwin; photo: T. Charles Erickson
She Loves Me plays on the Main Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival only through July 12. For ticket information call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go their website at www.wtfestival.org.