June 12, 2019

Store Clerks Bicker, Exchange Anonymous Letters in “She Loves Me”; Princeton Festival Delivers Exquisite Production of a Classic Musical

“SHE LOVES ME”: Performances are underway for “She Loves Me.” Directed by David Kellett, the Princeton Festival’s production of the musical runs through June 30 in the Matthews Acting Studio at Princeton University. Coworkers Georg (Tommy MacDonell, left) and Amalia (Amy Weintraub) have a contentious relationship, but they unknowingly have exchanged love letters. (Photo by Jessi Oliano)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The 15th anniversary Princeton Festival includes the Broadway musical She Loves Me. Directed by David Kellett, this presentation of the charming romantic comedy boasts exquisite musical performances, as well as elegant choreography and production design.

Georg Nowack is the assistant manager of Maraczek’s Parfumerie. He has been exchanging anonymous, romantic letters with a woman he knows only as “Dear Friend.” His mysterious correspondent turns out to be Amalia Balash, another employee at the shop, with whom he has a contentious working relationship.

In retrospect, the show’s writers were honing their craft in preparation for the creation of musicals that are bookmarks in the art form; librettist Joe Masteroff went on to write the book for Cabaret, while composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick subsequently wrote the score for Fiddler on the Roof.

Masteroff adapted She Loves Me from Hungarian playwright Miklós László’s Parfumerie. The 1937 play already had been the basis of In the Good Old Summertime, a 1949 musical film starring Judy Garland. Parfumerie also inspired the nonmusical films The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and the more recent You’ve Got Mail (1998). She Loves Me opened on Broadway in 1963 and has been revived multiple times, most recently in 2016.

Harnick’s literate lyrics are character-driven and conversational. Bock’s graceful music, which often evokes operetta, suggests a past that is stylized rather than realistic.

This aesthetic is reflected by Nick Dorr’s elegant set for Maraczek’s shop. Delicate bottles of perfume line shelves that are surrounded by advertisements and artwork of the type that might have provided covers for magazines at the turn of the last century. In a prominent illustration, a lady in a swirling pink dress is dancing with a gentleman in a tuxedo.

The ensemble scenes have the benefit of allowing the audience to appreciate Marie Miller’s tasteful, well-tailored period costumes. Miller juxtaposes a conspicuous use of black, white, and gray against bright splashes of color. In both the shop and Amalia’s apartment, Miller’s color palette is well coordinated with Dorr’s scenery.

Music director Peter Leigh-Nilsen, who also is the show’s keyboardist, leads the four-piece orchestra in a crisp rendition of an instrumental prologue. After the opening chords, a chromatic introduction leads into a brisk, affable second half.

In 1934 Budapest, Mr. Maraczek’s employees arrive to work at the shop, which is populated by recognizable archetypes from plays and films of the era. Among them are Ladislav Sipos, an edgy, middle-aged salesman who serves as something of a sidekick for Georg; and Arpad Laszlo, a delivery boy who aims to be something more. Juxtaposed against Amalia and Georg, a secondary couple is formed by Ilona Ritter and the man with whom she is having an affair, Steven Kodaly.

Urging Georg to get married, the gruff but paternal Maraczek reminisces about his own bachelorhood in “Days Gone By.” The song, delivered with warmth by baritone Patrick James, is a reflective waltz; it is a cross between “I Remember it Well” from Lerner & Loewe’s Gigi; and “Til Tomorrow,” a song Bock and Harnick wrote for a previous musical, Fiorello!

Arpad delivers cigarette cases that also are music boxes. Amalia enters, seeking a job. Georg firmly tells her there are no positions open, but she demonstrates her superior salesmanship when she sells a cigarette case by craftily passing it off as a candy box that gently reminds a would-be glutton, “No More Candy.” Singing the box’s melody, Amalia conspiratorially tells a customer that it “was designed with the two of us in mind.” Charmed, the customer eagerly buys the box, and in turn Maraczek hires Amalia on the spot.

This decision scarcely pleases Georg, who frequently bickers with Amalia, particularly when some improperly bottled hand cream causes a mess. The pair never suspect their romantic correspondence, in which they plan to meet in person at the Café Imperiale.

The amiable mood at the beginning of the show starts to erode, as other characters quarrel. Maraczek has become hostile toward Georg. The suave Kodaly makes — then breaks — a date with Ilona, prompting the latter to resolve not to fall for a man of his type again. Maraczek has hired a private investigator who tells him that his wife is having an affair with one of the employees; subsequently we hear a gunshot.

On the night of Amalia’s date with Georg, the Café Imperiale’s tense maître d’ (who is portrayed hilariously by Ethan Lynch) desperately tries to maintain “A Romantic Atmosphere” despite clumsy waiters and noisy diners. The interior of the restaurant is a garish red. Georg arrives with Sipos, and both are shocked to discover that Amalia is the former’s date. The scene is a notable example of Kellett’s capable direction, which is characterized by a keen sense of comic timing.

If there is an area in which the staging could use the performance space to greater effect, it is in the use of vertical levels. The auditorium has an upper platform that could have been used to highlight the emotional journeys taken by Amalia and Georg, particularly in the early part of the second act. Instead it is chiefly used for scenes in the shop’s workroom.

However, Kellett is skillful in using the width of the main stage to give the audience a sense of the everyday bustle that occurs in the Parfumerie. It is eye-filling to watch the front counter fly apart to reveal the rest of shop, similar to the effect of opening the cigarette box and discovering that it plays a tune.

Soprano Amy Weintraub is outstanding as Amalia, capturing the character’s spunk and charm. She has a lovely soprano, and her delicate sense of musical phrasing makes their two biggest numbers — the wistful “Dear Friend” and the sprightly “Vanilla Ice Cream” — the highlights they need to be.

Tommy MacDonell is equally well cast as the bashful, sincere Georg. He is particularly entertaining in “Tonight at Eight,” which conveys the character’s nervousness about his impending date, and in his elated performance of the title song. He has excellent chemistry with Weintraub, which is especially crucial to scenes which derive their humor from the fact that the characters initially have bad chemistry.

Shannon Rakow delivers a spirited performance as Ilona, particularly in the song “I Resolve.” James Conrad Smith, a baritone who brings considerable vocal power to “Grand Knowing You,” is suitably cast as the oily Kodaly. Brandon Walters as the charmingly eager Arpad, and Aaron Gooden as the skittish Sipos, both are entertaining in their roles. The voices of the ensemble blend well together.

On a thematic level, the illustration of the dancing couple can be juxtaposed against the desperation of the maître d’ to provide a space in which his supposedly amorous patrons can emulate it, contemplating the unrealistic expectations that popular images often set for real life. A recurring motif in which the clerks say goodbye to the customers eventually is sung by frantic Christmas shoppers, offering a rare moment of overlap between service providers and recipients.

Ultimately, though, She Loves Me is — like an antique music box or illustration — a beautifully crafted piece that offers a brief escape into an idealized past.

Presented by the Princeton Festival, She Loves Me will play in the Matthews Acting Studio at Princeton University, 185 Nassau Street in Princeton, through June 30. For tickets or more information call (609) 258-2787 or visit https://princetonfestival.org/performance/2019-musical.