Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
I loved it! Seriously though, anyone who reads this blog knows that I couldn't possibly stop at a three-word review.
She Loves Me is about two squabbling coworkers in a perfume shop in 1934 Budapest who don't realize that they've fallen in love as pen pals after finding each other through a newspaper Lonely Hearts column. It started out as a 1937 play, Parfumerie, by Miklos Lazlo, and has had several incarnations, including a 1940 movie, The Shop Around the Corner, with Jimmy Stewart, the 1963 Broadway musical, and most recently, the 1998 movie You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
This production, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, is sweet and charming. It has memorable performances, some terrific musical numbers that are wonderfully staged, and a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, of Fiddler on the Roof fame, that's by turns funny and poignant.
Brooks Ashmanskas, an adorable teddy bear of a man, is sales clerk Georg Howack, who's confident on the job, but insecure where love is concerned. He's a wonderfully expressive, physical performer, especially in "Tonight at Eight," as he eagerly awaits the first meeting with his pen pal, and in the title tune. The sight of Ashmanskas singing and dancing his way across a bare stage bathed in royal blue in "She Loves Me" was truly delightful. He made Georg funny, but also very sympathetic.
And Kate Baldwin, as Georg's coworker, Amalia Balash, is spirited and spunky, with a breathtaking voice. I got choked up when she sang "Dear Friend" at the end of Act I, waiting patiently in a cafe to meet her pen pal. Then, in Act II, there's a great scene between Georg and Amalia in her apartment, capped by Baldwin's singing about the joy of the "Vanilla Ice Cream" that Georg has brought her. Like Ashmanskas with "She Loves Me," Baldwin really brought that song to life, and she has a nice comic touch, too.
Granted, it was a little hard to believe that the lovely, vivacious Baldwin is "plain," which is how Amalia is described. And as Georg, Ashmanskas isn't really the "tyrant" that Amalia calls him as at one point. Georg seems reserved and set in his ways. Amalia is much more outgoing and adventurous. Still, I believed them as two people looking for love, and I can see how they would complement each other. I think it's kind of sweet and romantic that they fell in love through their letters.
As the other store clerks, Troy Britton Johnson, Jessica Stone and Mark Nelson are all memorable, and they each get their own star turn. (Hard to believe that this tiny shop needed so many sales clerks, but it does seem to be a busy place!) Johnson, the original Robert Martin in The Drowsy Chaperone, was perfect playing a similar character, the smooth-talking ladies man Steven Kodaly. Stone was hilarious as the quirky Ilona Ritter, Kodaly's long-suffering girlfriend. And Nelson is very believable as the meek, married-with-children Ladislav Sipos, who's just trying to keep his head down at work and keep his job.
(Stone, by the way, is married to Christopher Fitzgerald, a Tony nominee for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his role as Igor in Young Frankenstein.)
Of all the supporting roles, I especially enjoyed Jeremy Beck as Arpad, the eager bicycle delivery boy who harbors ambitions of becoming a clerk at the perfume shop. He was so endearing, especially in his number, "Try Me." I'm a big fan of Hairspray, so it was thrilling to see Dick Latessa, a Tony winner as the original Wilbur Turnblad, play Mr. Maraczek, the crusty perfume shop owner.
This is the final production from Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin, who's leaving to run the Williamstown Theatre Festival. And after She Loves Me closes in Boston, on June 15, it moves to Williamstown, for performances from June 27 to July 12.
Martin's included some nice touches, including a 13-piece orchestra suspended on a platform above the stage. (I think I've seen orchestras just about everywhere now - onstage, above the stage, below the stage, in alcoves on either side of the stage). James Noone's scenic design has a dreamy, storybook quality. I loved the way he showed the change of seasons, and his perfume shop is small, neat and exquisite.
There's also some great choreography by Denis Jones, most notably in a cafe scene where Amalia waits for her pen pal. The snobbish head waiter played by Mark Vietor and the accident-prone busboy, played by Jason Babinsky, were lots of fun to watch. (Although the cafe, dark and decked out in lots of plush red velvet, seemed like an odd spot for a first meeting.) I also loved the way the frenzied activity in the perfume shop was choreographed in a very busy "Twelve Days to Christmas." Jones, who has worked with Jerry Mitchell on Legally Blonde and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, also directs and choreographs the Broadway Bares fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
My only regret is, I wish that Joe Masteroff's book had included more scenes between Ashmanskas and Baldwin's characters. They were offstage for a few extended periods. As much as I enjoyed the cafe scene and the side stories involving the other sales clerks and Mr. Maraczek, I wanted Georg and Amalia back. But that's a pretty minor point in a totally enjoyable musical. In the end, I couldn't help but leave She Loves Me smiling.