Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fight. Boy and girl decide their animosity must be love. That’s old fashioned romantic comedy, and the basic plot of “She Loves Me,” the 1963 Broadway now playing at the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Illinois. The music for “She Loves Me” was written by composer Jerry Bock, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, the team known best for their iconic mid-century Broadway hit, “Fiddler On The Roof”, and the political biography/romantic comedy, “Fiorello!” Joe Masteroff wrote the book earning him a Tony Award nomination for Best Author of a Musical.
The story is based on the 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo. Laszlo’s story has also been the basis for three American movies, “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, “In the Good Old Summertime” (1949), a Judy Garland vehicle, and “You’ve Got Mail” (1990), the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks modernized version featuring love on the Internet, and the big box book store takeover of Manhattan. “She Loves Me,” set in a perfume store in author Laszlo’s home town of Budapest, Hungary in the 1930s, most resembles the original play.
In this somewhat lengthy musical, the principal characters, Georg and Amalia, meet when she ask him about a job at Maraczek’s Parfumerie. She’s eventually hired by Mr. Maraczek, played by Jeff Award Nominee, Terry Hamilton, but immediately gets off on the wrong foot with Georg, Maraczek’s chief salesman. Through a series of misunderstandings, their relationship goes downhill, and Georg’s career at Maraczek’s also deteriorates. There’s a lot of setup in the Act One as all the relationships among the shop owner and the various employees, and their families, are explained. Among the strengths of She Loves Me are the well fleshed out supporting character side stories.
Georg and Amalia aren’t the only lovers in the story. Mr. Maraczek’s rocky relationship with his wife affects everyone in the shop, but is played mostly off-stage. Sales clerks, Ilona Ritter and Steven Kodaly, played by Jessica Naimy and Jeff Award winner, David Schlumpf, set off many sparks of their own. Naimy is given some of the best lines, and the show’s best, and the most famous song, “A Trip to the Library.” Mr. Maraczek grows crankier throughout Act One, and even potentially deadly, due to a secret that’s revealed well before any possibility of serious Act Two tension.
The elder, and philosophical shop clerk, Ladislav Sipos, is played by Jeff Award nominee, James Earl Jones II, who is best known for the national tour of “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” and roles in the current television shows, “Chicago Fire,” and “Empire.” Jones draws Georg and the audience into Sipos’ world, a balancing act along the fine line between pathos and enviable, as he depicts the somewhat fearful, somewhat pandering, but pretty fairly almost content character. Sipos’ funniest moments occur when he freely advises his coworkers, then immediately crumbles in the presence of the boss.
Grant Kilian, a senior at Niles West High School, shares the role of the mildly cheeky, and ambitious delivery-boy, Arpad, with Johnny Rabe, a student at The Chicago Academy for the Arts. Kilian’s performance of “Try Me,” asking Mr. Maraczek to make him a sales clerk, was sweet and energetic, earning him enthusiastic applause.
For all the goings on in the shop, the focus of the story remains on the tumultuous relationship of Georg, played by Jeff Award winner, Alex Goodrich, and Amalia, played by Elizabeth Telford. Goodrich has some very good moments, particularly when he confronts his increasingly cranky boss, and later, when he sings the title song. Telford’s best moments occur in Act One when she cleverly shows her worth to Mr. Maraczek, earning the job though ingenuity, but bruising Georg’s ego, and later when she confesses her dilemma to Ilona. As a couple, Georg and Amalia are often bogged down. In their café argument scene, the café waiter played by Steven Strafford, outshines their bickering with a bit of lightly bawdy humor. In their duet, “Where’s My Shoe?” the staging gets a bit sloppy, focusing tension more on the tangled bedsheets than on the awkward romance.
Whenever an older musical is brought back to the stage, it seems fair to ask what it brings to today’s culture and society. Unfortunately, “She Loves Me” arguably fails that test. The premise, that discord between lovers indicates true love, has been recently criticized as a cultural flaw that promotes abusive relationships. Today’s parents and teachers are advised to avoid teaching young girls the old myth that the boy is mean to you because he likes you. Further, while the color blind casting of Jones as Sipos can be seen as a positive development following the example of “Hamilton,” it seems objectionable that the only African American cast in a main role plays the one character who also acts excessively subservient to the boss, and touts subservience to authority as a way of life. Further, “She Loves Me” also fails to give the audience any flavor of Budapest in the 1930s, and there’s no hint of what drove the Jewish playwright, Laszlo, out of his country in 1938.
In its favor, “She Loves Me” is light-hearted escapism, devoid of any taxing message or subtext. It might grab the hearts of fans of the American movies inspired by the same story. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s parfumerie set is beautiful and functional, effortlessly transforming into a hospital room, and a bedroom. The music isn’t as memorable as it is in other Bock and Harnick shows, but carries the story forward, and the songs were well sung by the lead characters, and the energetic ensemble.
“She Loves Me” is directed by Aaron Thielen, with Matt Dietchman as music director. The orchestra is conducted by Patti Garwood.
“She Loves Me” is playing at the Marriott Theatre through June 18. For tickets see www.marriotttheatre.com.
Photos by Liz Lauren.