A man and a woman who can’t stand each other in real life fall in love with each other in cyberspace.  Sound familiar? It should be if you’ve seen Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. But before email, there were letters, and 35 years before You’ve Got Mail, there was the 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me, a pre-Internet version of the same irresistible tale.

Actually the whole thing started back in Hungary in the 1930s with a play called Parfumerie, which became MGM’s The Shop Around The Corner (remember James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan?) which became MGM’s In The Good Old Summertime (a very young Van Johnson and Judy Garland), the original finally adapted as a Broadway musical with book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (who just a year later went on to make history with Fiddler On The Roof).

Suffice it to say that the tale of lovers who think they hate each other (or more accurately real life enemies who, unbeknownst to themselves, actually love each other) is one that has captured the imagination and affection of audiences for over 80 years, and continues to captivate and enchant in the splendiferous Rubicon revival of She Loves Me, with a luminous Kim Huber as Amalia and a very James Stewart-esque Kevin Symons as Georg, falling magically in love on stage and the best reason to take a September road trip north to Ventura.

Musical highlights (each and every one of them worthy of mention) begin with “Good Morning, Good Day,” which introduces the audience to the sales staff of the Budapest perfumery called Maraczek’s; “No More Candy,” out of work salesgirl Amalia’s successful attempt to snag a job at Maraczek’s by persuading customers that a musical cigarette box is in actuality a musical candy box which will help them keep the pounds off; “Tonight At Eight” and “Will He Like Me” which Georg and Amalia (respectively) sing in anticipation of their first face-to-face date with their “Dear Friend,” “A Romantic Atmosphere,” sung by the harried head waiter of the intimate restaurant where Georg and Amalia plan to meet, and “Dear Friend,” sung by a heartbroken Amalia upon being stood up (after Georg found out that Amalia and “Dear Friend” are one and the same and panicked).

That’s about all the plot synopsis you’ll get here, though few in the audience will doubt that “dear friends” on paper will end up much more than friends in real life.  With a story as unabashedly romantic as this one a happy ending is de rigueur, and despite the certainty of its outcome, getting there is tuneful, occasionally tearful fun indeed.

There’s not a finer voiced, more all around talented musical theater leading lady than Kim Huber, and the role of Amalia is one she was born to play. In a soprano that easily rivals that of Barbara Cook, Broadway’s original Amalia, Huber soars in her every musical moment, with her “Ice Cream” receiving arguably the evening’s biggest ovation.  Huber’s career has been based on musicals (including her Broadway turns in Beauty And The Beast, Sunset Boulevard, and Marie Christine and a long long run at the El Portal in The Marvelous Wonderettes), yet the depth of her portrayal of Amalia (just watch her eyes when she realizes that she’s falling for Georg) would make her equally right for straight dramatic roles (but then, we wouldn’t hear that transcendent voice!).

Opposite Huber is the winning Kevin Symons, perhaps better known for his non-musical roles at the Colony and at Laguna Playhouse, but what a perfect match Georg and Symons are here. It’s as if the Jimmy Stewart of The Shop Around The Corner had come back with just the right singing voice to sell the show’s most famous number, the oh so catchy title song, and the ingratiating charm to win both Amalia’s (and the audience’s heart).

Providing comic relief (and some show-stopping musical moments) are Jamison Stern as perfumery lothario Kodaly and Beverly Ward as the slightly ditzy Ilona, Kodaly’s occasional “sleep-over friend.” Stern, making a welcome Southland return after early summer’s It’s Only Life, oozes all the slick charm of Jack Cassidy, the Broadway original, and sings the romantic “Ilona” and the ironic “Grand Knowing You” in one of the biggest and best show voices around.  Ward hits every note just right as the shop girl with a heart of gold (but very little ability to say “no,”), and shines in her pair of solos, the girl-power declaration “I Resolve” and the charming tale of “A Trip To The Library” which leads to unexpected romance.

The supporting cast is equally splendid, and thanks to the writers’ generosity, each gets at least one solo moment to take center stage. 

The wonderful George Ball (Maraczek) sings of his romantic youth in “Days Gone By,” Larry Cahn (marvelous as the sycophantic Sipos) gives his “Perspective” on how to stay on the boss’s good side, Nathan Holland (stealing every moment of his single scene as the headwaiter) gets laugh after laugh with “A Romantic Atmosphere,” and as bicycle messenger Arpad, Matthew Rocheleau (is there anyone better at playing nerdy/cute?) is a delight as he tries to convince Maraczek to hire him as a clerk.

Completing the ensemble are musical theater talents who could just as easily be playing leading roles: Rick Cornette (Hotel C’Est L’Amour and Huber’s costar in the West Coast premiere of The Last Five Years), Jessica Gordon, Leslie Henstock (check out her debut CD), Jeff Johnston (a teen with a future on the musical stage), Beth Sobo, and Spanky Reynoso (watch for Reynoso in a wonderful female turn in “No More Candy.”) 

Director/choreographer Kirby Ward deserves highest marks here, as do musical director/keyboardist Lloyd Cooper and his three fellow musicians, most especially Sharon Cooper on violin (what would Hungary be without the violin?). Thomas S. Giamario’s set design ingeniously allows for over two dozen scene changes, and kudos are in order for Christine L. Munich (lighting design), Shon LeBlanc (for his gorgeous period costumes), Rebecca Kessin (sound design), and the versatile Reynoso (hair and makeup design).

She Loves Me was a Broadway rarity when it opened in New York in 1963, a musical without big production numbers.  Perhaps that’s why it didn’t have the long run one might have expected from a show which has had its longevity as a regional theater favorite. But it’s precisely its intimacy that makes it a perfect fit for the Rubicon, and with a cast as exceptional as the one assembled here, She Loves Me is a winner all around.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
September 6, 2008
Photos: Tiffany Israel/Brooks Institute

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