Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Love Is in the Air

WHAT’S MOST ENDEARING about the story that gives us “She Loves Me” is its improbability. We need to see two lonely people despise one another even as they pine for an idealized version that the other represents through correspondence. It’s a musical with a Christmas theme, and as holiday entertainment, it’s more probable than seeing a succession of ghosts show up – and less overdone.

Marc de la Concha, Julia Burrows, Michael McCorry Rose,
and David Girard in theREP's "She Loves Me."

As theRep’s December offering, it couldn’t be better – as a choice and as a production. It’s old enough to be fresh, and timeless enough to be up-to-the-minute.

It’s a ‘30s story (a play, in fact) that became a ‘60s musical – although it also spawned three motion pictures. It fell naturally into the hands of director Ernst Lubitsch, a German refugee, whose 1940 film “The Shop around the Corner” took the wistfulness of Miklós László’s play into the unique Lubitsch world of romantic longing and sexual sophistication.

Which hangs over every subsequent adaptation, including the stage musical. Musicals thrive on high emotion, and this has plenty to spare. The Lubitsch film was like a piece of chamber music compared to its predecessors (“Ninotchka,” “The Merry Widow,” and “Trouble in Paradise” among them); likewise, “She Loves Me” feels like a smaller piece than previous Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick collaborations like “Fiorello!” and “Tenderloin.”

Fortunately, the story remains in its original time and place, even if the music is very much in the post Rodgers-and-Hammerstein mold. And we have a ‘30s cast in place: Dick Powell, Carole Lombard, Paulette Goddard, and Douglass Dumbrille are the headliners, with Arthur Lake and George Tobias in supporting roles. Or, to identify them properly, Michael McCorry Rose, Julia Burrows, Tracy Jai Edwards, David Girard, Jimmy Bain, and Marc de la Concha.

Set in and around a Budapest perfumery, it gives us a classic double-pairing: Georg and Amalia (Rose and Burrows), who can’t stop sparring, and Ilona and Steven (Edwards and Girard), whose romance has its own sparks and sputters.

From the opening ensemble number, “Good Morning, Good Day,” we know that we’re in good hands. Brian Prather’s art nouveau set suggests what we need to feel while offering a playing area that allows for intricate movement. Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill’s staging flows seamlessly into the choreography by Freddy Ramirez, who makes dance happen so deftly that it seems to be happening all the time. And there’s not only Lubitsch lurking: look for a Godard (not Goddard) moment near the top of the show when the bicycling Arpad (Bain) isolates the unscrupulous Steven, setting up our not-to-be-disappointed expectations of him.

Why a perfumery? It’s ever more of a relic, harkening to a time of retail elegance when dreams of adornment whispered romantic possibility to a certain class of customer. As the number “Sounds While Selling” shows, it’s a happy conspiracy of shoppers and salesclerks, each experience ending with a close-harmony good-bye from the staff. And it’s all a reflection of the elegance of the store’s owner, Mr. Maraczek (Kevin McGuire), who is loved and feared by his staff.

In the midst of this, Georg exchanges letters with an unmet pen-pal who has won his heart with her writing. Amalia, we learn, is doing the same, her own secret admirer more appealing than the men she’s met. The end is inevitable; what drives the story are the surprising impediments that occur.

This is László, not Wodehouse, and the characters stray farther from archetype than might be expect. Like Lombard, the beautiful Burrows isn’t afraid to screw up her face into horrific expressions of unhappiness, reflecting Amalia’s inner tug-of-war between how she believes she ought to behave and how she might wish to. She has a big, gorgeous voice, easy to appreciate in such compelling numbers as “Dear Friend,” which closes the first part of the show, and the incredible aria “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which will change forever the way you view a frozen confection.

She’s well matched by Rose, who mixes handsome urbanity with little-boy impulsiveness. Like Amalia, he has to seem credibly temperamental, yet also sell the second-act change of heart. We know it’s going to occur, but we want them to work for it.

You’ve got more freedom when you’re not a romantic lead, and Edwards makes the most of her character’s vicissitudes. She’s an urban Ado Annie, a woman of style who’s still her own woman, and Edwards is versatile and hilarious in the role and its tailor-made musical numbers, whether it be a sympathetic duet with Amalia (“I Don’t Know His Name”) or her joyful, surprising solo “A Trip to the Library.”

Girard easily pulls off the toughest job of all: portraying an unctuous bounder with enough charm to convince us to actually kind of like him throughout, even informing his memorable second-act exit with commendable dignity. As one of the sales clerks, he blends nicely as part of the in-the-shop ensemble numbers, but sings distinctively enough to carry his characterization right into his voice.

Musical director Josh D. Smith leads a too-small ensemble from a perch above the set and nevertheless makes the bare-bones instrumentation sound sufficient.

It’s a long show, at least by our current attention-attenuated standards, and a musically rich one, yet it’s not a show of showstoppers. These are songs that grow on you, and they sparkle with Harnick’s excellently crafted, witty, literate lyrics, the like of which are rare these days. This is a cast that puts across every word, and could do so without the intrusive, echo-laden amplification. Loudspeakers aren’t voices, although I know I’m pleading a losing cause to the video-saturated generations.

Which is why I’d just as soon hide from holiday pageantry. Ever since Bing Crosby paired with David Bowie to sing ... I can’t even mention the name of the horror they warbled together ... the spectacle of end-of-the-year entertainment has grown worse and worse. TheRep’s “She Loves Me” is a stunning exception. You have until Christmas Eve to see it. Please do.

She Loves Me
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
theRep, 111 North Pearl Street, Albany, NY 12207
Ticket Information

No comments: