She Loves Me
Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - October 2004
Review by John Kenrick
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill.)
Paper Mill's ravishing new production of She Loves Me is nothing less than an early Christmas present for theatre lovers. If you already love this gem of a musical, all I have to tell you is that our "Dear Friend" looks and sounds better than ever. Served up with ample amounts of style, imagination and (of course) "romantic atmosphere, this is the best staging of She Loves Me that I have yet seen.
The story is taken from the old play Parfumerie, which also inspired such big screen hits as The Little Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail. In brief, the plot involves two battling co-workers who have no idea that they are romantic pen pals. She Loves Me sets this now- classic misunderstanding in a 1930s Budapest perfume shop, where old world courtesy and art noveau architecture add period charm to the mix.
The original 1963 New York production was only a modest success -- and that despite a superb score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, a solid libretto by Joe Masteroff, and a knock-out cast that included Barbara Cook and Jack Cassidy. But a grand cast recording and a devoted core group of fans made She Loves Me a cult classic. As a result, it has been staged frequently over the decades, winning fresh raves everywhere from colleges and community theatres to well-received mountings on Broadway and London's West End.
So what makes Paper Mill's production so outstanding? For starters, director James Brennan does something novel -- he takes She Loves Me's libretto at its word. Instead of depicting the romantic leads as irresistible young creatures bound to fall for each other, he offers us two not so young, not so pretty people who seek love in a lonely world. In short, we get these characters as ordinary people -- making their search all the more poignant. A fine choreographer, he depicts a quiet cafe gone wild and a hectic shop on Christmas eve with an all too believable spirit of insanity. If only Broadway producers would stop putting revivals in the hands of pretentious foreign pinheads and start relying on solid native talent like Brennan!
Paper Mill's production team has come up with a particularly handsome physical production Michael Anania's sets and Gail Baldoni's costumes bring a lost world to life in a carefully calculated swirl of color and elegance. F. Mitchell Dana's lighting is the perfect final touch, and music director Tom Helm makes nineteen pieces in the pit sound like a small symphony.
Hearing George Dvorsky sing is one of the most shameless pleasures I know of, and he is in top form as the uncertain lover George Nowack. From his first appearance as a working stiff, we know this guy -- heck, many of us have been him at some time or another. Dvorsky gives such a well-nuanced and heartfelt performance that by the time he launches into the giddy title tune, the audience cannot help cheering him on. No wonder he is one of the most admired leading men in musical theatre today.
Michele Ragusa is simply delicious as Amalia, the shop girl who does not know her hated shop manager is her beloved unseen correspondent. Her warm, lush soprano voice makes easy work of every demanding number, including the death-defying aria "Vanilla Ice Cream." Like Dvorsky, Ragusa keeps her character as everyday as possible -- making her bursts of romance and physical comedy all the more exhilarating.
Beloved Broadway veteran George S. Irving is irresistible as Mr. Maraczech, the shop owner whose misunderstanding almost ends in tragedy. At 82, he is nothing less than a comic wonder, turning an often under-realized role into a three dimensional delight. Bill Bateman is perfection as the fretful Sipos, making his comic solo "Perspective" one of the unexpected highlights of the evening. David Hess is exactly right as the smarmy womanizer Kodaly, and Nancy Anderson is luscious as Ilona, the sometime object of his randy attentions. Special praise goes to Bradford William Anderson as the delivery boy Arpad -- a disarming and thoroughly delightful performance.
The supporting ensemble has a blast, adding crucial touches of merriment throughout. In particular, popular leading man Paul Schoeffler has a field day as a head waiter trying to preserve some "Romantic Atmosphere." His performance is a rare example of how comic restraint can leave an audience in hysterics.
At a time of year when bottom lines mean so much, here's a happy one -- Paper Mill's She Loves Me is a total joy. In all fairness, I must warn you that the final scene had me laughing and wiping away tears. If that does not appeal to you, you have my deepest sympathies. In my book, any production that can make you laugh and cry at the same time is cause for real rejoicing.
This production completed its limited run on December 5, 2004.