The provenance of the musical, She Loves Me, is as impeccable as it is fascinating. The show is based on the 1936 play, Parfumerie, by Hungarian playwright, Miklós László, which morphed into the 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. It rose again as In the Good Old Summertime, which starred Judy Garland and Van Johnson. My other brain, who always sits next to me when I go to the theatre, whispered, “This is a lot like You’ve Got Mail.” Sure enough, good old Wikipedia lists it as starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The action kicks off in front of Maraczek’s Parfumerie on a beautiful summer day in 1934 Budapest. One by one principal characters enter and sing paeans to the joy of summer—the delightful delivery boy, Arpad (Ricky Abilez), tools around on his bicycle, then the other employees of the Maraczek store show up for work—the old hand Ladislov (Matthew Henerson), slick talking Kodaly (Sam Ludwig), delightful, tart-tongued Ilona Ritter (Marlene Martinez), and principal character, Georg Nowack (superb Brian Vaughn). With the arrival of store owner, Mr. Maraczek (Gregory North), a powerful presence, the store is opened and the action begins in earnest.
In most reviews, I like to give credit to the creative staff towards the end of my commentary, but that won’t serve here. The physical production is so integral to all that takes place, that it must be described. On entering the auditorium, an audience is greeted by a large, circular building with the name Maraczek’s inscribed above the doors. On either side of the stage are buildings in forced perspective; two sets of stairs lead down into the auditorium; and globular street lamps on either side of the proscenium sport circular benches.
At the end of the opening number, the double doors open to reveal the interior of the shop that boasts three sales counters with glass displays that can be rolled around. And they roll a lot. The cunning design by Jo Winiarski also employs quickly shifted smaller sets, slick as slick can be, that roll off and on as needed by the action.
The show is a romantic romp, with the old trope of a man and a woman at odds due to fundamental mistakes. When Amalia Balash (brilliant soprano Erin Mackey) enters the store looking for a job, she eventually has a run in with Georg. She gets the job, but she and Georg just can’t get along. Of course, they are destined for each other, but the path to true love is twisted. I can’t see that it will hurt to reveal a basic plot point. It seems that Georg has been writing in romantic style to a woman that he has never met and whose name he does not know. Amalia has been writing to a man she has never met and does not know. The exchange of letters kindles romantic feelings in them both that are fraught with fear and desire. They agree to meet at a restaurant with a code for identification. She has a rose as a book mark in Anna Karenina. He is to have a rose pinned to his coat. When he enters the restaurant and sees who it is that he is to meet, he is struck with fear and confusion. He flees, but he begins to reassess his opinion of Amalia. The crooked road to romance starts to straighten.
The restaurant scene is utterly magnificent, with the ensemble taking the stage to dance up a storm. The scene is given pizzazz by Danny Sheie as the snotty head waiter. Mr. Sheie is one of the great theatre comedians. He is a force of nature on stage, with a clarion voice as pure and powerful as a trumpet. The first rate ensemble includes Alicia Coca, Branden Holzer, Jonathan Kim, Robert E. Knight, Marlene Montes, Katy Tang, and Dekontee Tucrkile.
Choreography is not just dancing moves, nor is it blocking. Directors mostly take care of blocking, but when you have sixteen performers all doing different things at different times it requires the expertise of an ace choreographer in concert with the director. She Loves Me proves that David Ivers is a great director. Jaclyn Miller is a bang-up choreographer; together they make an unbeatable team. The scene that takes place in the Christmas rush at the parfumerie near the end of the show is utterly hilarious with the entire cast on stage each character rushing around on its own agenda.
Near the end of the show, Mr. Vaughn delivers the title song with such an exuberant power of voice and movement that it brought tears to my eyes, sap that I am. I was still daubing my eyes as we left the auditorium.
This extraordinary show boasts a book by Joe Masteroff (Caberet), with lyrics and music by Sheldon Harnick, and Jerry Bock (Fiddler on the Roof and many, many more). Music and dance reign supreme with this show that builds in power and emotion all the way to a standing ovation curtain call
The design and creative team includes the aforementioned Jo Winiarski, set design; Alex Jaeger, costume design; Jaymi Lee Smith, lighting design; Jeff Polunas, sound design; Gregg Coffin, music direction; Jaclyn Miller, choreography; and Joanne DeNaut, CSA, casting. Jamie A. Tucker manages the stage with unfettered assurance. The musicians include Tom Griep, conductor and keyboards; Alby Potts, keyboards and programming; Robert Peterson, violin; Elizabeth Brown, cello; Jay Mason, reeds; Dustin McKinney, trumpet; Louis Allee, percussion; and Tim Christensen, bass.
She Loves Me continues through February 22 on the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.