She Loves Me

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti in She Loves Me, photo by Joan Marcus

Right now two classic musicals by the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are playing across the street from each other. Fiddler on the Roof and the Roundabout Theatre's She Loves Me are both playing by the corner of 53rd St./54th St. and Broadway, and you can't really go wrong with either musical. Both shows are over 50 years old, and the fact that they're still being revived is a testament to their continued appeal. But the approach Bartlett Sher took to Fiddler on the Roof and the approach Scott Ellis took to She Loves Me is a useful comparison of how to revive (or how not to revive) classic musicals.


Bartlett Sher decided to take a Very Serious Approach to Fiddler. Much of the humor is muted, and it's largely been stripped of its vaudeville DNA. There's a framing device with a red parka that honestly seems like a cheap Schindler's List ripoff. Fiddler is such a strong show both musically and dramatically that even with Sher's tinkering the warmth and emotion had much of the audience dabbing its eyes. But one wonders what could have been had Danny Burstein and company been allowed to play up more of the joy and humor of the show.

In contrast, the new production of She Loves Me doesn't attempt to find a dark subtext to this very well-known tale of two perfume shop workers who feud during the day but are secretly lonely heart pen pals when off the clock. Instead, the premium seems to have been on finding the right actors for each role, and developing a natural chemistry among the entire cast so the entire show bubbles along as sweetly as, well, vanilla ice cream. Director Scott Ellis understands that humor if done right doesn't undercut a show -- it deepens and strengthens the more serious themes.

Benanti and Levi, photo by Joan Marcus
Unlike Fiddler, She Loves Me has no huge hit tunes,  and no real big production number either (except for maybe the tango at the CafĂ© Imperial). The "big moments" of the musical are really the small moments -- when Georg (a wonderful Zachary Levi) does a cartwheel of joy during the title number "She Loves Me", or when Amalia (Laura Benanti) jumps out of bed to sing about the virtues of "Vanilla Ice Cream." But there's no big show anthem. It doesn't matter. The show is enchanting from start to finish.

A huge part of the success is due to the pitch-perfect performances of Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. Benanti has the same sort of neurotic, introverted charm that also made Margaret Sullivan so winning in Shop Around the Corner. Benanti is so physically gorgeous and her soprano so beautiful that on paper it's hard to believe that Amalia has resorted to answering lonely heart ads, but you watch her act slightly brittle and tetchy around Maraczek's shop and it's totally believable. Wonderful, wonderful performance. Levi is also great at depicting the exact sort of guy people dislike at work -- the ambitious middle manager type who acts a little supercilious. When Amalia and Georg finally realized that they were each others' "Dear Friends" the guy next to me was sobbing. Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti made you believe in the love story.

Krakowski and Creel, photo by Joan Marcus
This is an ensemble musical, and everyone in the ensemble was wonderful. Jane Krakowski was a sweetly ditzy Ilona, who's been carrying on a one-sided affair with the rakish Steven Kodaly (Gavin Kreel). I could go back to the show night after night just to watch Jane Krakowski's adorable pronunciation of "books" and "optometrist" in "A Trip to the Library." Krakowski's playing the same sort of character she played on 30 Rock but when a schtick works that well, keep on going with that schtick. Nicholas Barasch was very cute as the delivery boy Arpad. Michael McGrath as Ladislav Sipos the low key clerk was the perfect straight man in the show although I can never forget Felix Bressart's amazingly eccentric performance as Pirovich in Shop Around the Corner when I see the corresponding character in She Loves Me. I thought Peter Bartlett preened too much as the Headwaiter, and Byron Jennings was a bit bland as Maraczek (especially compared to Frank Morgan's great performance in Shop Around the Corner), but those are minor complaints.

Levi and McGrath, photo by Joan Marcus
Director Scott Ellis focused on getting good singers for every part, so the choreography by Warren Carlyle was more low-key than usual for a Broadway musical, but it was fitting for this unpretentious production. David Rockwell's sets are absolutely lovely -- the perfume shop ends up being a little jewel box of a set. Jeff Mahshie's costumes were colorful and attractively retro-1930's but believable as clothes for "ordinary people."

It's amazing that this material doesn't come across as dated. After all, it's based on a play that was written in 1937. But the hectic and competitive nature of retail work ("Twelve Days of Christmas" was hilarious), the loneliness that people are rarely willing to admit to (especially in the era of social media, where every meal has to be a special, filtered event on Instagram), these things are so beautifully depicted in She Loves Me that the show could have been written yesterday. Studio 54 is the place to be if you want to see the most beautiful, enchanting musical on Broadway. In fact I already long to make a return trip. As Maraczek's workers would say, Thank you, thank you, we'll call again.


And just because this movie never, ever gets old:


Comments

  1. Thank-you for the wonderful review. I've been listening to the OBC of this show since 1978 when I saw the BBC version on Great Performances. I'm finally going to get a chance to see it live this weekend, and I can hardly wait. I just wanted to make one comment. The SHOP AROUND THE CORNER equivalent of the Sipos character is actually Pirovich and is played by the great Felix Bressart. Vadas is the equivalent of the Kodaly character.

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    1. Thanks for the correction! Pirovich is the character I'm talking about and Bressart was such a great comic actor. I've edited the blog to reflect the correction. I still smile whenever I think of the way Bressart says "Kralik? You'll get your wallet."

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