Even Scrooge would have to love She Loves Me, playing through Dec. 22 at The Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall. After all, this endearing and enduring 1963 musical love story ends with a happy Christmas scene.
The show by Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Hamick (lyrics), who later gave us Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof, is firmly positioned in a string of shows based on Hungarian playwright Miklós László’s 1937 comedy Parfumerie.
For sophisticated entertainment you can’t go wrong with a Hungarian comedy, intertwining romance with the surprising wit of Eastern European humor. Parfumerie was adapted into numerous films and plays, including The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, You’ve Got Mail and even a 2016 Korean film version of She Loves Me.
The Shedd’s show, directed with exquisite panache by Richard Jessup, takes place in a Budapest perfume shop in 1934. Wealthy women shop there in spite of the Depression, but the clerks worry about their jobs. The shop owner, Zoltan Maraczek (Ron Daum), tries to conceal his concern with the air of a bon vivant.
Assistant manager Georg Nowack (Cloud Pemble), although proper and well meaning, gets off to a rocky start with a new employee, Amalia Balash (Shirley Andress). Both are shy and lonely and have never tasted love. They mistake their disconcerting feelings of mutual attraction for irritation.
Little do they know that they have been exchanging letters for months through a lonely hearts service. Addressing their letters as “Dear Friend,” they have never revealed their names or places of work. But they both read the same books and share many values. Although they have no inkling of their Dear Friend’s appearance or age, they know each other on the inside and feel very comfortable with that knowledge.
Two others at the shop have a stormy relationship. Ilona Ritter (Vanessa Greenway) is a sexy and highly competent clerk involved with Steven Kodaly (Dylan Stasack), a fellow employee who happens to be an opportunistic womanizer. We can recognize his tricks from a mile away, but Ilona’s vision is clouded by her desire for security.
Rounding out the employees are the eldest, Ladislav Sipos (Kevin Newland Scott), and Arpad, the young delivery boy (Tate Foshay).
As in all good musicals with a plot, She Loves Me features songs that push forward the storyline. In this case the songs work exceptionally well to reveal the psyche of each major character, and often tell a complete story in themselves.
Amalia, about to meet Dear Friend for the first time, torments herself with “Will He Like Me?” Arpad, ardently desiring to be promoted to clerk, sings “Try Me” to Mr. Masaczek with exuberant confidence.
In “A Trip to the Library,” Ilona relates her encounter with a kind, book-loving ophthalmologist that changes her life. Wise old Sipos, trying to keep peace in the shop, sings “Perspective” to show Georg that whatever happens at work is insignificant in the boundless scheme of the universe.
Kodaly’s “Grand Knowing You” offers a subtle but dark hint of terrible times to come. However, the title song, Georg’s “She Loves Me,” is so ebullient that we’ll set aside our knowledge of world history and root for the triumph of love.
The superb cast is well suited to the demands of the roles. Andress as Amalia is wonderfully expressive in her singing and gestures. Pemble’s Georg is slightly geeky but clearly decent and lovable. Greenway, a talented actor from Chicago, gives us a delightful Ilona, portraying her with real depth.
Stasack is hilarious as Kodaly, especially in his loose-hipped dancing. Forshay’s Arpad is sprightly in song and dance, convincing us he’s bound for future distinction. Scott makes Sipos both humorous and touching. Eric Blanchard is fun as a snooty waiter.
Musical director Robert Ashens leads a fine orchestra in the Hungarian-inspired music. Kudos to the violinists, Yvonne Hsueh, Alwyn Wright and Claudia Miller.
Although three hours long, She Loves Me is smart, invigorating and never boring. I can imagine Scrooge dancing out of the theater and, like Georg, clicking his heels with joy. ν
She Loves Me is playing at The Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall through Dec. 22; times and tickets through TheShedd.org or 541-434-7000.