She Loves Me (and we love her)

Lakewood Theatre finds the wit and sparkle in a classic small gem of the Broadway stage

She Loves Me, which is enjoying a sparkling run through December 21 at Lakewood Theatre, may be one of the best Broadway musicals most people have never heard of. Opened to critical admiration and a relatively short run in 1963, it’s tuneful enough, with a clever, romantic, and entirely agreeable score built on nostalgic memories of operetta.

But its true strength, and what sets it apart from so many musicals whose books serve mainly as simple clotheslines to hang the songs on, is the story on which it’s closely based, a 1937 play by the Hungarian writer Miklós László. Called Parfumerie, the play was quickly remade as the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch movie comedy The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a pair of squabbling shop clerks who don’t realize they’re in love. A movie-musical remake, 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime, starred Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and the tale, in modernized and muscled-up yet surprisingly faithful form, hit the popularity jackpot with the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan musical comedy You’ve Got Mail, which was adapted by the witty sisters Nora and Delia Ephron.

Rutledge and Angelo: embedded with song. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

Rutledge and Angelo: embedded with song. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

She Loves Me brought together something of a Broadway dream team in the making. Joe Masteroff, who adapted László’s play for the book, three years later adapted a series of Christopher Isherwood stories as Cabaret. The team of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick collaborated the year after She Loves Me on Fiddler on the Roof. She Loves Me doesn’t have the big breakout musical numbers that are Broadway’s lifeblood, and which Fiddler and Cabaret deliver in spades. It’s a subtler, more synthesized score, Bach-like in its balances and entirely in the service of its story, which has the exquisite completeness of a good novella: more than a short story, less than a novel, at once rich and to the point.

It’s been my pleasure to see two beautifully realized productions of this small gem in recent years: the 2010 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which came together with that spark of magic that sometimes happens in the theater, and which stands out for me as the best musical production Ashland has done; and now this show at Lakewood. Under the skilled guidance of veteran director Tobias Andersen and musical director Jon Quesenberry, with brief but captivating choreography by Laura Hiszczynkyj, Lakewood’s production doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that played so harmoniously in Ashland. But it makes the most of its leaner budget, and surely is among the highlights of Lakewood’s long history with musical theater, too. Balance, wit, movement, conflict, and romance, with just the right undertone of sadness, or at least wistfulness: it’s a true connoisseur’s brew.

Part of that wistfulness, I think, comes from the knowledge that László’s story, set in an upscale Budapest gift shop peopled by downscale but aspiring clerks, so studiously ignores the war storms rising over Europe as it concentrates on a purely personal story. This small world, we understand, with its small hopes and daily rituals and hesitations and pleasures, will soon be torn apart, and what then of these small but generous people we’ve come to meet on such intimate terms? In a way Parfumerie seems an act of either small defiance or willful avoidance, an insistence in the face of impending public disaster on the importance of private life.

Weaver and Jones: crisis at the café. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

Weaver and Jones: crisis at the café. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

The leads here are Paul Angelo as Georg Nowack, the chief clerk and manager of Mr. Maraczek’s shop, and Dru Rutledge as Amalia Balash, the bright and talented but also seemingly flighty new clerk who irritates Georg almost immediately. The joke is this: as much as they grate on each other’s nerves in person, they are soulmates via letter, where they’ve met each other as anonymous “dear friends” through a lonelyhearts pen-pal club. Angelo and Balash play the duality of the thing beautifully, battling not just each other but also their own impulses as they seek to reach beyond surface impressions and discover what’s truly important to them. Rutledge is a deft musical-comedy star, adept at both the music and the comedy; Angelo is a fine and subtle actor whose voice isn’t as polished as Rutledge’s but who is thoroughly at home selling a song.

The supporting cast is excellent, in particular Cassi Q. Kohl as the loose-and-brassy clerk Ilona and baritone Stacey Murdock as her smooth-and-oily in-store Lothario, Mr. Kodaly. Bryan Luttrell as the shop owner Maraczek has the fleshy geniality of a successful politician, a Warren Magnuson or Pierre Salinger, about him; Jeremy Southard has a nice hesitation as don’t-rock-the-boat Mr. Sipos; Martin Tebo is sunny and Horatio Alger-ish as the delivery boy Arpad; and Brandon Weaver has a terrific brief turn as an officious maîtr d’, supported by Sam Jones as the bumbling busboy who gets his goat. Even small roles such as Sydney Weir and David M. Brown’s elegant tango are well-turned; and the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus, zipping in and out as shop customers and kanoodling restaurant diners, are sharp: no dropoff or fill-ins here.

This is one of those shows that you can tell from the first notes of the orchestra has high aspirations: the eight-piece band, planted upstage and led by Quesenberry at the keyboard, is self-assured from the get-go, providing a steady and gently propulsive foundation for the action. Pat Rohrbach’s period costumes are elegant and slightly showy; and John Gerth’s set, with Jeff Woods’ lighting, provides a hint of Deco dazzle on a budget.

Kohl and Rutledge: let's sing about men. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

Kohl and Rutledge: let’s sing about men. Photo courtesy Lakewood Theatre

There’ll be, I imagine, the usual complaints that She Loves Me, like all romantic comedies, is predictable. It’s a charge I’ve never really understood. Of course we know pretty much how things will end, but so what? We know we’re all eventually going to die, too. It’s what happens in the meantime that makes life interesting. As long as there are human beings, the path toward romantic love will be a fascination, and this particular path is a distinctive one.

I’ll also bring up my own lonely dissent against the near-universal body-micing in contemporary musical-theater productions of all the singers, a practice that may be necessary to make voices heard over amplified musical instruments but that also leeches much of the subtlety and variation from the singers’ natural voices, while adding a slightly metallic undertone to the songs. That said – and granting that this may well be simply a personal crotchet, and on this point the world has passed me by – the balance is better in this show than what I often hear. So, kudos to the techies, too.

If you disagree, I don’t know … send me a letter. Anonymously. It worked for Amalia and Georg.

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She Loves Me continues through December 26 at Lakewood Theatre, in Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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