By Karen Isaacs
Roundabout Theater is doing a fine revival of the musical She Loves Me at Studio 54. And yet…..
This Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical, with book by Joe Masteroff, has become a musical theater classic even if its original Broadway run was much too short (302 performances). It is based on the play The Little Shop Around the Corner, which was made into successful film with James Stewart and Margret Sullavan and then a musical with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime. In the more modern era it was the basis of the film, You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The story is set in Budapest in the 1930s where Georg Nowak is manager of a parfumerie. When Amalia Balash is hired over his objections, they immediately butt heads. Both are single and both are corresponding with a “dear friend” whom they met through a lonely hearts advertisement. You can guess the rest. Several subplots include the Don Juan salesclerk and the woman clerk he is on-and-off with, the shop owner and both the messenger boy and the clerk who just wants to keep his job.
I saw the original production (Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy, Barbara Baxley, Ludwig Donath, Nathaniel Frey and Ralph Williams) at the Shubert Theater in New Haven during its initial pre-Broadway tryout. I was totally enchanted with the story, the music and the performances. The two-LP original cast recording was a favorite.
In 1993, Roundabout Theater had a successful revival directed by Scott Ellis that ran for close to 400 performances. It featured Boyd Gaines, Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, and Sally Mayes among others.
Now Scott Ellis is directing this revival. He has broadcast that this is “new” version of the show and certainly, the night I saw it, the audience loved it.
I wish I was as enthusiastic. The cast is very good, the set and costumes are terrific, the orchestrations are good, the voices overall are excellent, but something about this production bothered me.
Ellis has lost the subtlety of this show. Everything has been broadened out, played for hearty guffaws, overplaying moments that should be more controlled. It’s lost some of its sweetness. Maybe that’s what today’s audiences want, but for me, it subverted the real mood of the show.
Perhaps I am not recalling correctly the other productions, I’ve seen – including a fine one directed by Mark Lamos at Westport Country Playhouse in 2010. But I don’t think so.
First of all the positives. The cast is vocally terrific though some of the other aspects of
the performances are lacking charm. Laura Benanti plays Amalia but lost some of the charm of the character. I found I wasn’t rooting for her, as much as should have. Zachary Levi follows up his Broadway debut in First Date with a fine performance as the confused and reticent Georg. Gavin Creel plays the lothario Steven Kodaly with true egotism though he misses on some of the charm that Jack Cassidy brought to the role. Michael McGrath is terrific is Ladislav, the clerk who only wants to keep his job. Byron Jennings is outstanding as the owner, Mr. Marczek who is facing his own mid-life crisis. You are touched by his performance. And Jane Krakowski is excellent, if much too attractive, for Ilona Ritter, the clerk who is easily taken in by Steven Kodaly. Nicholas Barasch is also excellent as the messenger/delivery boy, Arpad.
Next, let’s applaud the set by David Rockwell. It gives us the outside of the elegant show and then reveals the inside. It is easy to see what the audience applauded the set and later when it is changed into the “romantic café” applauded again. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes reflect the 1930s in their design and sensibility. Donald Holder’s lighting has created the seasonal changes and the atmosphere of the period.
The music direction by Paul Gemignani and the new orchestrations by Larry Hochman are fine. Today’s Broadway orchestras are smaller than those in 1964 but the musicians succeed in capturing both the 1930s feel to the show and the middle-European schmaltz so much a part of the Viennese musical tradition.
My biggest problem was with the choreography by Warren Carlyle. It broke the mood and often went for broad strokes and moves rather than subtle touches. The most egregious example is the song “Ilona” in which Kodaly tries to convince Ilona to stay with him. Should the audience be laughing loudly at this a gentle and seductive tango? Should some of the moves be reminiscent of “Dancing with the Stars”? I refer to Kodaly’s imitation of a pawing bull and Ilona’s split which then results in Kodaly pulling her across the floor? I shook my head in both dismay and dislike. It broke the mood. Also, no matter how feverish or upset she is, would Amalia really jump on the bed like a five year old during “Vanilla Ice Cream”? Again, I think not.
Highlights of the production include Jane Krawkowsk’s rendition of Ilona’s “A Trip to the Library” and Byron Jenning’s entire performance, particularly “Days Gone By”. But many more of the songs were good but not as great as they could be.
If you have never seen this delightful, romantic show, you will certainly enjoy this production of She Loves Me, but for some of us, we wish it were the perfect production we were hoping for.
She Loves Me is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street, through June 12. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.