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Broadway musicals have taken many new paths and forms since 1963, when Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's She Loves Me premiered. Its tale of penpals in love, who hate each other in real life, was well within the so-called "Golden Age" of Broadway musicals. But the show's quietly charming, sweetly romantic nature only managed a modest nine-month run. Its two Broadway revivals, in 1993 and 2016, each ran a few months longer in productions that sought to give the work more dazzle and pizazz.
The show works its magic best in an intimate, warm presentation without reinterpretation or radical concept. That's exactly what the PlayMakers Repertory Company production does, allowing the material to woo the audience through detailed direction, lovable characterizations, and glowing visuals. Even those weaned on flashier and grittier contemporary shows will likely be seduced.
The show is based on the popular 1940 Hollywood movie The Shop Around the Corner, which was adapted from a 1937 Hungarian play. The musical's script, by Joe Masteroff, makes minor changes but sticks closely to the tale of clerks in a 1930s Budapest shop. Here, it's a ladies' luxury cosmetics store run by Mr. Maraczek, whose assistant manager, Georg Nowack, has been corresponding with an anonymous woman in answer to a lonely-hearts newspaper ad. Newly hired clerk Amalia Balash has also been corresponding with an anonymous man, with whom she has fallen in love. She constantly clashes with Georg, who finds her threatening because she is such a good sales person and doesn't defer to him. It's soon obvious that the loving anonymous couple and the warring clerks are the same two people and, being a romantic comedy, all will end well.
The PRC production is a delight even before the show starts, the audience taking in Daniel Zimmerman's beautiful two-story set representing the storefront, combining Art Nouveau and Art Deco elements that shimmer in Amith Chandrashaker's pastel lighting. As the show moves from out front and into the shop, the storefront cleverly revolves while the actors roll in well-stocked display cases. Changes are quickly made into a restaurant, a hospital room, and Amalia's bedroom with the help of a drawn curtain and a trapdoor lift. Bobbi Owen's marvelous period costumes, from delivery boy and clerk's uniforms to upper-class ladies' furs and hats, add an authentic feel of the enterprise.
Director Kirsten Sanderson keeps the characterizations down-to-earth, giving each actor uplifting spirit and believable humanity, making the audience care about them and their fates. She stages the scenes with precision and wit, making good use of the theater's thrust stage, as does choreographer Tracy Bersley. Neither overplays the presentation, yet constantly amuse and surprise with attention to detail. Music director Mark Hartman leads a five-piece orchestra on the set's upper level, the scoring and delivery more intimate than usual but nicely mimicking a salon-style ensemble suitable for this intimate version.
On opening night, Jenny Latimer's Amalia was extremely engaging, from fiery defiance and sharp putdowns to moony dreaming and great self-doubt. She instantly won everyone over with her opening number, "No More Candy," in which Amalia ingeniously sells a music box the others could not, and solidified her fine talents with "Vanilla Ice Cream," Amalia's second act showstopper in which she's torn between her pen pal and newfound love for Georg. Michael Maliakel's Georg nicely balanced the character's outer confidence and resolve with his inner uncertainty and innocence, giving his big numbers, "Tonight at Eight" and the show's title song, winning energy.
One of this production's best aspects is that all the other characters are well played and given equal directorial attention. Janet Krupin threatened to steal every scene she was in as Ilona, the shop clerk more actively looking for love but who's fallen for shop clerk Steven, a ladies' man who strings her along. Krupin’s glances and body language brought huge laughs, and her big number about meeting a more respectable man in the library was another showstopper. Adam Poole displayed formerly hidden vocal and dance talents as Steven in a characterization that was more likable than the role indicates, but falling within the directorial concept.
Ray Dooley's Mr. Maraczek made a moving transition from curmudgeonly to chastened; Connor Nielsen perfectly embodied the wide-eyed eagerness of delivery boy Arpad; and Jeffrey Blair Cornell stole the collective audience's heart with his gentle long-time clerk, Ladislav. Dan Toot's headwaiter and David Fine's busboy in the stage-filling ensemble number, "A Romantic Atmosphere," added amusing physical comedy.
The cast is made up of actors who can sing but who are not singing actors, evident in some strain in higher registers and purity of tone, but in this context of real-world characterizations, it added to the charm. That charm also helped in several numbers that are more filler than focused but, overall, the musical elements were well served, with the exception of some harshness from the head microphones in louder numbers.
The plot ends on Christmas Eve with a big Christmas shopping number, so the show easily qualifies as holiday entertainment, suitable for the whole family. If the choice of She Loves Me seems at odds with PRC's usual fare, it's justified by the company's professional execution of all of its elements for a welcome respite from the outside world's turmoil and troubles.
She Loves Me continues through Sunday, December 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.