'She Loves Me': Theater Review

She Loves Me: Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Hungarian rhapsody.

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi play quarreling co-workers unaware that they are amorous pen pals in this musical love letter, which also features Jane Krakowski.

It’s one month late for Valentine's Day, but Roundabout Theatre Company's enchanting staging of She Loves Me sends a message straight to the heart of romantic musical comedy lovers. Designed as a pastel-colored, art nouveau jewel box, the 1963 show has been directed by Scott Ellis with effortless buoyancy and sophistication. It's also ideally cast, with an ensemble led by Laura Benanti, whose silvery soprano was born to sing this role. Add in Zachary Levi, projecting throwback charm with winning confidence, and Jane Krakowski in top form and you have a revival that will delight admirers of this musical favorite while providing a perfect introduction to those encountering it for the first time.

The production follows Fiddler on the Roof as the second revival this season of a show with a justifiably cherished score by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. But She Loves Me, which features a book full of warmth and wit by Joe Masteroff (Cabaret), could hardly be more different. This is not a musical built around powerhouse production numbers or emphatic themes. It's a modestly scaled vehicle notable for its intimacy and sweetness. It provides starring roles in unwitting lovebirds Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack (originally played on Broadway by Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey). But this egalitarian show is also distinguished by the highly individualized, character-specific songs that give each of the principal cast his or her captivating moment in the spotlight.

The story is familiar from three screen adaptations drawn from the same 1937 Hungarian play, Parfumerie, by Miklos Laszlo — Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner; the MGM Judy Garland musical remake, In the Good Old Summertime; and Nora Ephron's Internet-era update, You’ve Got Mail. But the characters and situations remain full of freshness and fizz in the creative team's treatment, honoring a story that's old-fashioned in the best possible sense. As an example of classic musical-comedy craftsmanship, it's beyond reproach.

David Rockwell's set is a gorgeous rendering of a commercial district in quaint early-'30s Budapest, which unfolds like a pop-up greeting card to reveal the sparkling interior of Maraczek's Parfumerie, its glass shelves stacked with brightly colored scents, soaps, creams and bath salts. The Hungarian violins of the overture give way to "Good Morning, Good Day," in which we meet Georg (Levi), the head clerk at the store, along with his colleagues Ladislav Sipos (Michael McGrath), Ilona Ritter (Krakowski), Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel) and bicycle-riding delivery boy Arpad (Nicholas Barasch). It's a convivial workplace, where customers and staff alike are treated with gracious formality, watched over with a fatherly eye by the owner, Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings).

While Kodaly and Ilona are having a not-so-secret fling, Georg has been unlucky in love. But his hopes are elevated by a romantic exchange of letters through a lonely-hearts column with a woman he knows only as "Dear Friend." Unbeknownst to either of them, they meet before the scheduled rendezvous when Amalia (Benanti) gets a job at Maraczek's and they take an instant dislike to one another. But soon Georg loses his position, when Mr. Maraczek mistakenly concludes that his wife has been carrying on with the head clerk. A near-tragedy follows, after which Georg is rehired, gradually changing his mind about Amalia as the identity of his correspondent becomes clear.

Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel in 'She Loves Me'

That shift from animosity to nervous courtship is beautifully drawn in the writing, the songs and in the performances of Benanti and Levi. His Georg seems suave and handsome at times, disarmingly nebbishy at others, and the actor uses his considerable height to great comedic advantage in songs like "Tonight at Eight." He's superbly partnered with Benanti, who has never been better. She ranks alongside Audra McDonald and Kelli O'Hara among our most accomplished female musical theater stars, but Benanti arguably has the edge in comedy. Her timing is flawless, never pushing too hard on a line or failing to grasp the heightened effectiveness of a throwaway delivery. As for her trilling vocals, Benanti matches technique with maturity and heart in ravishing interpretations of "Dear Friend" and the hilariously scatty stream-of-consciousness monologue, "Vanilla Ice Cream."

But what makes She Loves Me so special is the wealth of character and subplot detail woven around the central romance. Jennings is touching as a man nostalgic for the romance of his youth (revisited in "Days Gone By") and shattered by his wife's betrayal. McGrath gets endearing, low-key comic mileage out of the studiously agreeable Sipos, whose survival mechanisms he outlines in "Perspective." And relative newcomer Barasch aces Arpad's application to graduate to the shop floor in "Try Me."

Whether on stage in shows like Nine and Guys and Dolls, or on TV in 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Krakowski has rebuilt the mold for dim blond sexpots, owning the ditziness of her characters with marvelous screwball defiance. She's absolute bliss as the eternally hopeful Miss Ritter — petulantly attempting to resist the seductive rhythms of Kodaly's "Ilona" before surrendering and mopping the floor in a limber split-and-drag; vowing not to be toyed with in "I Resolve"; or confirming her romantic optimism in "A Trip to the Library." Krakowski even makes daffy touches like a Titanic sight gag work, and just watch her inspired physicality as she repeatedly leaps into a perfume mist during the accelerating frenzy of "Twelve Days of Christmas." There's a lovely sisterly chemistry in her scenes with Benanti, and a sparring sensuality with Creel, who expertly balances the oily and charming sides of his character, making Kodaly an amusing and strangely likeable cad.

Aside from brief interludes in a hospital and Amalia's apartment, the only significant detour away from the shop is to the Cafe Imperiale, lavishly designed by Rockwell with loads of plush red velvet and bathed in low light from Donald Holder that signals it instantly as a go-to spot for secret assignations. This den of amorous intrigue is presided over by a swishy headwaiter played by Peter Bartlett, whose effete shtick — seen most recently in Something Rotten! — never fails to score big laughs. His number, "A Romantic Atmosphere," is a hoot. Choreographer Warren Carlyle keeps the ensemble on their toes here with touches of ballet, tango and arch posing and strutting that makes for a tender contrast when Ellis draws the focus back in on the disappointed Amalia.

This is Ellis' third experience with the show, having directed a previous Roundabout revival early in his career in 1993, and a London production the following year. His breezy staging never puts a foot wrong, displaying unerring trust in the material while hitting every comic beat and letting every emotional moment breathe. There's equally impeccable work from all departments, including costumer Jeff Mahshie's stylish period wardrobe, Larry Hochman's delicate orchestrations for 14 musicians and the invaluable Paul Gemignani's spirited music direction. Everything falls into place in this richly satisfying production, which had me smiling from beginning to end. It's pure pleasure.

Venue: Studio 54, New York
Cast: Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski, Gavin Creel, Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, Peter Bartlett, Nicholas Barasch, Cameron Adams, Justin Bowen, Alison Cimmet, Benjamin Eakeley, Michael Fatica, Gina Ferrall, Jenifer Foote, Andrew Kober, Laura Shoop, Jim Walton
Director: Scott Ellis
Book: Joe Masteroff, based on the play ‘Parfumerie,’ by Miklos Laszlo
Music: Jerry Bock
Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Music director: Paul Gemignani
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Executive producer: Sydney Beers
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company