She Loves Me – Studio 54, New York

0162_Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi in SHE LOVES ME

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi in She Loves Me at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, New York. Picture: Joan Marcus

She Loves Me continues at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, New York until 12 June.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

On the heels of its great Off-Broadway revival of The Robber Bridegroom, the industrious Roundabout Theatre Company outdoes itself with its sublime Broadway remounting of She Loves Me. 

From its opening moment when most of the principal characters enter one by one to sing about the beautiful summer morning until its final lovers’ clinch sprinkled with Christmas Eve snow, this She Loves Me is a non-stop delight.

The revival of this 1963 musical is a particularly notable one for Roundabout. In 1993, the show marked the company’s first-ever foray into producing a musical on Broadway. The not-for-profit company, which started inauspiciously in 1965, built its initial reputation on modest resurrections of plays from the past.

Going into musicals was a risky venture, but the success of She Loves Me led the way for an impressive parade of Roundabout musical revivals. There have been some misses, but a lot of hits, including the mega-hit Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes, and such titles as Assassins, Nine, Anything Goes, On the Twentieth Century, and the aforementioned The Robber Bridegroom, which just recently opened.

The affection the Roundabout management feels for She Loves Me is evident in its lavish production values and impeccable casting, headed by Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. The pair work triumphantly under the knowing hand of director Scott Ellis, who directed Roundabout’s first production of the show. Ellis’ staging captures the hints of pathos in the piece as well as the abundant humour.

Based on the 1937 play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, the musical has a book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. It concerns two workers at a Budapest perfume shop, Georg and Amalia. Georg is the assistant manager, a good worker and stern boss, but underneath he’s graced with – or perhaps hindered by –a rather shy persona and bachelor innocence. Amalia is a newly hired clerk who’s also quite good at her job, and during the day in the shop, the two are constantly at odds with one another. Unknowingly, however, they are romantically entangled as anonymous pen pals.

How their identities come to light, plus the amorous ins-and-outs of other folks in the shop, make up the story. It’s totally inconsequential but totally beguiling, thanks to the deft portraits of its cast of characters. Witness the three times Hollywood has borrowed the plot: the 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan; In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and You’ve Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Most of all, there is the bountiful Bock-Harnick score. It’s an inspired mix of melodic Old World operetta-like lushness with echoes of Lehar and Strauss, gypsy abandon and Broadway show tune pizzazz. It’s all woven seamlessly into Masteroff’s book, and played with heart by the 14-piece orchestra under the direction of the revered Paul Gemignani.

As Georg, Levi channels all the disarmingly charismatic appeal of his movie predecessors in the role and overlays it with the panache of a fine song-and-dance man. What kind of medal is worthy of a performer who in the middle of his galvanising rendition of the title song executes a cartwheel?

It’s certainly worth saying again that Benanti’s Amalia is a triumph. She gives the woman irresistible vivacity and smarts, an arresting edge and near-hearbreaking vulnerability. And her soprano reaches heavenly heights. Her top notes in the show’s signature character song ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’ and in the gorgeous ballad ‘Dear Friend’ are to treasure.

Beyond the two leads, the show fairly bulges with star quality, each performer blessed with at least one big turn in the spotlight. Jane Krakowski fills out the role of Ilona, another clerk in the shop, with a magnetic sense of fun. She’s a blonde bombshell without guile, helplessly and haplessly involved with the shop’s number one male sales clerk, Kodaly, an irrepressible lothario played with grand smarminess by Gavin Creel.

When Krakowski and Creel team up for their big dance number to the rhumba-rhythmed ‘Ilona’, it’s top-drawer, giddy sex on the move. She also delivers a delicious rendition of ‘A Trip to the Library’, where Ilona finally – or at least hopefully – finds true love.

Byron Jennings brings both dignity and passion to Mr Maraczek, the shop’s benevolent owner who has romantic troubles of his own. He also demonstrates a pleasing baritone as he sings of a youthful past in the fetching waltz ‘Days Gone By’.

Michael McGrath delivers several dollops of sardonic fun as another long-time employee and confidant of Georg, while Nicholas Barasch as the delivery boy gets his break-through in the number ‘Try Me’, as he makes his case to be promoted to sales clerk.

When the story journeys beyond the shop personnel, Peter Bartlett ignites laughs with his inimitable way of dragging out laugh lines as a frazzled headwaiter in the Café Imperiale, which doubles as a trysting place. It’s here that Warren Carlyle’s choreography takes full stage in his stylised portrayals of illicit lovers at play.

Things almost get darkly erotic at this café, but it’s an exuberant brightness that prevails throughout most of the show. It’s  a mood that’s immediately set when the exterior of the Maraczek Parfumerie on a picturesque Budsapest avenue unfolds to reveal a giant jewel box, gleaming with perfume bottles. David Rockwell designed the sets.

The mood is amplified by the patrons who enter the shop in Jeff Mahshie’s elegant period costumes. Just the slightest shadow of the 1930s Great Depression here. (Business hasn’t been too good of late, someone says.)

If you’re looking for social consciousness look elsewhere. But if you want to leave the theatre walking on air in a perfume-scented cloud, She Loves Me is your ticket.

Ron Cohen 

Readers may also be interested in:

The Robber Bridegroom – Laura Pels Theatre, New York – Review

Southern Comfort – The Public Theater, New York – Review

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