She Loves Me continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 5 March 2017.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote She Loves Me the year before they hit the jackpot with Fiddler On the Roof (1964).
The initial Broadway production which starred Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey marked the debut of Harold Prince as producer and director. The next year it was staged in London with Anne Rogers and Gary Raymond in the roles of Amalia and Georg but in neither instance was the show a hit, losing money in comparatively short runs.
Yet She Loves Me resolutely refuses to lie down. It’s been back on Broadway and in the West End, is a favourite production for students, and now, it seems, has found the perfect cast and an ideal venue where it deserves to be a resounding hit.
Under director Matthew White’s keen eye, each cast member has been given just enough room to develop into a real character, attuned to the daily routine of working in a parfumerie, but living in a world where little is expected of them and nothing can be taken for granted.
Two of the employees (Scarlett Strallen and Mark Umbers as Amalia and Georg) are in a pen-friend relationship unbeknown to each other, while the parfumerie’s ladies’ man (Dominic Tighe) strings along the beautiful but not so clever Ilona (Katherine Kingsley). Presiding over them is their manager Mr Maraczek (Les Dennis).
The book by Joe Masteroff, based on a Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo, takes some unforeseen twists into which the good humoured and effervescent songs spring out in a joyous fashion.
Even the rotating sets in Paul Farnsworth’s design seem to spin in time with the music as they turn on four revolves revealing a handsome production design of Budapest’s grey wash streets with blue interiors (shades of Fortnum & Mason), lined with perfume bottles.
The show opens and closes with a rhapsodic Hungarian scented violin solo, the one thing it shares in common with Fiddler On the Roof, with the musical direction by Catherine Jayes and new orchestrations by Jason Carr aiding and abetting the flow of the production.
Rebecca Howell does wonders with her choreography on the wide but comparatively shallow Menier stage.
Strallen, rapturous of tone, and Umbers are genuinely touching as the pen-friends and sing their hearts out, she in her paean to ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’, a gift from him by which reveals his intentions to her for the first time, and he in the dashing title song.
Kingsley brings the house down with her knock-out solo, ‘A Trip to the Library’ and Tighe serenades her in his seductive solo ‘Ilona’.
She Loves Me is an ensemble piece, almost a chamber opera. It possesses rare qualities of skill, taste (an old-fashioned virtue but apt in this instance) and humour, all of them honoured in this very touching treat.
Tickets for She Loves Me are available HERE.