She Loves Me continues at the Landor Theatre, London until 7 March.
Star rating: 4 stars ****
It’s 20 years since She Loves Me won five Oliviers for the Savoy revival of this sweet, old-fashioned 1963 Bock and Harnick musical and one of those award-winners, Tracie Bennett, Best Supporting Actress as roving-eyed shopgirl Ilona Ritter, was at the Landor’s press night to cheer on its current reincarnation.
Taken from Hungarian Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Parfumerie which also spawned a Judy Garland musical, In the Good Old Summertime, and much later the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy You’ve Got Mail, it ran for 302 performances on Broadway with the great Barbara Cook as Amalia Balash, the perfume-store assistant constantly at odds with her shy superior Georg while unaware each is the other’s secret lonely hearts pen-pal.
At the Landor we have 19-year-old Charlotte Jaconelli making her musical theatre debut as Amalia, and we could well have been in at the start of something special because this young lady has a magnificent set of pipes that could take her right to the top.
Jaconelli, who trained at ArtsEd, put her musical theatre career on hold when she and her big-voiced partner Jonathan Antoine reached the 2012 final of Britain’s Got Talent where they were hot favourites but got beaten by Pudsey the performing dog.
Still, it led to a lucrative recording contract, and the couple continued working together until last year when the pair, friends since schooldays in Essex, split up to go their separate ways, Antoine to the opera world and Jaconelli to record her first solo classical-crossover album Solitaire. Now she’s back doing what she always wanted to do, musical theatre – and what a start she’s made.
She has a lovely innocence about her acting but it is her remarkable soprano that commands the small upstairs space, so lovingly turned into Maraczek’s Budapest shop by David Shields’ painstakingly assembed art nouveau set.
The charm of ‘Will He Like Me?’ and wit of the showstopper ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’, very much a cabaret staple these days, suggest Jaconelli can handle ballads and humorous songs with equal facility and it will be fascinating to see where she goes next.
While welcoming the new, it’s good to acknowledge the ‘old’ and the outrageous Ian Dring nicks every scene he’s in, as the parfumerie’s cuckolded owner Mr Maraczek, particularly when donning a revolting black hairpiece to double up as a very camp head waiter at the dubious Imperiale nightspot where the hapless pen pals had planned their first meeting.
As he was in the ensemble for the original Evita (when Marti Webb took over from Elaine Paige in the early 1980s), Dring has been around for most of my theatregoing career and I expect I’ve also seen him as Thenardier in Les Mis. His ‘Master of the House’ would have been a treat. Dring’s a Landor regular these days – he’s also appeared in Follies, Once Upon a Mattress, Do I Hear A Waltz? and Into the Woods there – and is alone worth the price of a ticket for this charming show.
Matthew Wellman, impressive as Angel in Rent at the Guildford School of Acting when I last saw him, again catches the eye (and the ear because he has a delightfully easy-to-listen-to voice) as suave, smarmy ladies’ man Steven Kodaly.
John Sandberg, as the lovestruck Georg Nowack, comes into his own in Act II with a bravura version of the title song and Emily Lynne, who plays Ilona and has an impressive musical theatre CV in Pittsburgh, is a polished addition to the London scene, both as actress and singer.
House director Robert McWhir does a grand job with a superbly-chosen crew but might consider a ten-minute trim – 26 songs with virtually no dancing is a long haul and there are too many storylines for a perfect evening.
I could cheerfully have done without the one involving young Arpad pestering for a job in the store which got in the way of the main plot, although fair play to Joshua LeClair who handles that irritatingly chirpy part well.
David Herzog is excellent as the more homespun shop assistant Ladislav and Rosie Ladkin, Annie Horn, Olivia Holland-Rose and Susie Chaytow all shine in the close-harmony ensemble work.
MD Ian Vince-Gatt, on keyboards, and a stringed duet interpet Jerry Bock’s score with delicacy in what is a delightful hark-back to another time and world long before Twitter, Google, Facebook and everything else modern turned the art of romantic letter-writing into a squiggle of XOXs, silly faces and other grotesque corruptions of our beautiful language.