I left the Roundabout’s largely terrific revival of “She Loves Me” at Studio 54 singing most of the beautiful songs in my head. I’ll confess that I also entered Studio 54 singing those songs in my head. (I had played the male lead of this musical in a student production: She Loves Me, the Broadway Musical That Changed Our Lives.) Still, even somebody who has never heard of this romantic musical comedy could easily fall in love with “She Loves Me.” Yes, the 1963 musical occasionally offers some dated views towards women, and this production contains a couple of portrayals that could be improved. But, as with the plot of the show, all rights itself by the end, thanks to the gorgeously melodic score, David Rockwell’s jewel box of a set, and the stand-out performances by Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski as two lovelorn shopgirls in an elegant European parfumerie.
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If “She Loves Me” is more obscure than the musical that the same songwriting team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote immediately afterwards, “Fiddler on the Roof” (playing at the Broadway Theater around the corner), the plot is just as familiar. Three separate films — “The Shop Around The Corner” (1940) with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, “In The Good Old Summertime” (1949) with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — are all based on the same 1930’s Hungarian play that inspired “She Loves Me,” Miklos Laszlo’s “Parfumerie.” Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) and Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) are secret lovers, but even they aren’t in on the secret. They are bickering co-workers at a parfumerie, but by coincidence they also have been writing love letters to one another anonymously, having “met” through a Lonely Hearts Club classified newspaper ad.
There are a few subplots also centering on love and work, most notably Jane Krakowski’s misbegotten office romance with the shop’s cad, portrayed by Gavin Creel. This set-up allows for much comic business, but more rewarding are the delightful musical confections that Bock and Harnick concocted. Harnick’s bright lyrics work in magnificent concert with Bock’s sprightly music in such songs as “Tonight at 8,” when the Dear Friends (as they call one another) will meet at last. Georg sings as if in one breath:
I’m nervous and upset because this girl I’ve never met I get to meet
tonight at eight.…
I wish I knew exactly how I’ll act
and what will happen
when we dine tonight at eight.
I know I’ll drop the silverware, but will I spill the water
or the wine tonight at eight?
Tonight I’ll walk right up
and sit right down
Beside the smartest girl in town
And then it’s anybody’s guess…
More and more, I’m breathing less and less.
Many of the songs are addictive, right down to the little ditty the clerks line up and sing each time a customer leaves the store —
Thank you, madam.
Please call again.
Do call again, madam.
— a melody as infectious as a jingle.
With her gift for comedy and her glorious voice, Benanti couldn’t be better as Amalia. If there’s a wink now and then in her manner – we’re all having fun up here — there is persuasive passion when it counts. It’s a pleasure to see the Tony-winning actress back on Broadway after an absence of almost six years
Zachary Levi is an appealing performer, with a good enough voice, and if I hadn’t seen Santino Fontana in the role of Georg at the Caramoor Music Festival’s production of “She Loves Me” three years ago, or Jimmy Stewart in the film of the same story, I probably would be happy with Levi’s bland good-guy Georg. But there is an edge to Georg – yes even as portrayed by James Stewart — that helps explain why, once he learns the identity of his Dear Friend, he not only keeps the information from her for an intolerably long time (the length of most of Act II), but teases her with his secret knowledge. He makes up a story of a girl who met a date through a Lonely Hearts Club. “The next day the police found her left leg floating in the Danube. And, you know- they never did find the rest of her.” I’m guessing pre-feminist audiences found this ghastly story amusing, but why would a 100 percent good guy be so cruel? Without a more nuanced portrayal, it’s easy to see this as a flaw in the script. It’s hard enough tolerating Amalia’s reaction when Georg finally tells her. She sings:
It’s really true then!
It’s what I hoped for…
that it was you!
(Nowadays, one hopes that at the very least Amalia would say “You’re such a jerk!” before opening her heart to him like this.)
Jane Krakowski faced a larger challenge along the same lines —
her character is a variation of the stereotypical sexy dumb blonde – yet the freshness of her performance overrides any potential cringing, such as in the comic song “A Trip To the Library”:
Krakowski also shares with Gavin Creel the highlight of Warren Carlyle’s choreography, all sensual and athletic tango-ing, managing to be both awe-inspiring and hilarious, especially when she does a split and he drags her across the floor
Creel, a Broadway veteran who’s given many a wonderful performance (as Claude in the revival of Hair, for example), here gives us a Kodaly as obvious comic villain; all that’s missing is the twirling of his mustache. The character is without question a creep, as the unfolding plot reveals with certainty. What’s left out is a sense of deep-voiced sensuousness that would explain why so many women fall for him. Creel is one of several cast members with overemphatic flourishes, which makes me suspect it was a decision by director Scott Ellis to opt toward the cartoonish.
This is a quibble. In a cast of almost two dozen performers — including, among many delights, the always reliable comic shenanigans of Michael McGrath and the newly reliable Nicholas Barasch (who is 17 years old) as the shop’s bike messenger who dreams of being a clerk — there is little in “She Loves Me” that’s not to love.
She Loves Me
Book by Joe Masteroff; Music by Jerry Bock; Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; Based on a play by Miklós László
Directed by Scott Ellis, choreographed by Warren Carlyle, scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Jeff Mahshie, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Jon Weston, musical direction by Paul Gemignani
Laura Benanti as Amalia, Zachary Levi as Georg, Jane Krakowski as Ilona, Gavin Creel as Kodaly, Byron Jennings as Maraczek, Michael McGrath as Sipos, Nicholas Barasch as Arpad, Peter Bartlett as head waiter, Cameron Adams, Justin Bowen, Preston Truman Boyd, Alison Cimmet, Benjamin Eakley, Sarah Edwards, Michael Fatica, Gina Ferrall, Jenifer Foote, Andrew Kober, Laura Shoop, Jim Walton
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $52 – $147
“She Loves Me” is scheduled to run through June 5, 2016.
Update: She Loves Me has been extended to July 10, 2016.