Laura Benanti in She Loves Me
Delicacy abounds in Scott Ellis' gorgeous revival of She Loves Me, which opened last night in a Roundabout Theatre Company production at Studio 54. From David Rockwell's pastel-colored sets to Laura Benanti's lilting soprano, the show brims with gentle pleasures.
For anyone unfamiliar with this 1963 show that has a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb, She Loves tells a story about two pen pals who have never met and who are very much in love. When their paths cross off the paper, however, they take an instant dislike to one another, each unaware of the other's identity. It's a romantic tale that's found its way to the movies often in films like Shop Around the Corner and more recently You've Got Mail.
She Loves Me unfolds in the story's original setting—1930s Hungary—in a small perfume shop. There, Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) finds himself having to contend with a new salesclerk his boss hires, Amalia Balash (Benanti). They're the pen pals, and Georg finds her brash straightforwardness exceptionally unappealing. Similarly, she finds his gruffness and all-business manner distasteful.
When the shop owner Mr. Maraczek (Bryon Jennings) begins to take personal frustrations out on Georg, matters between the two unknown lovers only get worse. That is until he figures out who she is, and she begins to suspect that she might be feuding with the man she's come to adore on paper.
Scott Ellis' breezy production unfolds within the confines of Rockwell's handsome scenic design that works like a swirling pop-up book. It's hard not to just smile the first time the interior of the shop is revealed. The façade of the store splits open to reveal a two-story interior, filled with lighted display cases and a graceful wrought-iron staircase, all rendered in light pinks, yellows, greens, and blues. When the action moves to other locations such as the shop's storage room, Amalia's apartment, and the garish restaurant where Georg and Amalia's first pen pal tryst takes place, Rockwell's work proves to be equally deft . Each new setting evokes old world elegance as we'd like—in our most romantic imaginations—it to have been.
The same can be said of the characters and the cast's exquisite renderings of them. Benanti, who sings Bock's operetta-esque trills with beautiful grace, imbues Amalia with the sort of plucky charm that hearkens back to black and white screwball comedies. At the same time, she also brings a delicious sense of contemporary quirkiness to the role, making Amalia a woman audiences love almost instantly.
The same can be said of Levi's turn as Georg. There's something very upright and Jimmy Stewart leading-man about his performance (and Stewart did play the role at one point), and yet, Levi brings a lightness to the stage that has just a glint of modernity to it. Beyond this, Levi shares a marvelously prickly chemistry with co-star Benanti.
Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski also spark with an amusing and palpable connection. They play, respectively, the womanizing Steven Kodaly, and the too-easily-put-upon-by men, Illona Ritter, two other clerks at the store who share an on-again, off-again relationship. One of the production's many highlights is a steamy pas de deux (from choreographer Warren Carlyle) they share, as he attempts to re-woo her during one of their "off-again" moments.
Rounding out the employee roles at Maraczek's is delivery-boy Arpad, who, played by Nicholas Barasch, proves to be a winning breath of pure innocence, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there's Michael McGrath's comically deft turn as the world weary clerk Ladislav Sipos.
Beyond Rockwell's design, there are some beautiful (and witty) period costumes from Jeff Mahshie, and lighting designer Donald Holder bathes the stages in a variety of colors that ably and astutely support the visuals. Unobtrusive sound design from Jon Weston means that Harnick's clever lyrics land perfectly on audiences' ears and simultaneously it balances what always can be tricky in this theater in particular: it balances the orchestral sound, gorgeous sweeping European melodies from Bock, that comes from boxes on either side of the stage. And, in this production that looks and sounds so remarkable, it's rough to just not fall for the musical bon-bon that is She Loves Me.
---- Andy Propst
She Loves Me plays at Studio 54 *254 West 54th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.roundabouttheatre.org.
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