Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities opens the Southland’s most exciting 2011 CLO season with about as perfect a musical (and as exquisite a production) as you’re likely to see all year, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me.

You’ve heard the story before. A man and a woman who can’t stand each other in real life fall in love with each other while corresponding anonymously. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fell for each other that way in You’ve Got Mail, but thirty-five years before “NY152” and “Shopgirl” met in cyberspace, the 1963 musical She Loves Me gave Broadway audiences 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 with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, which then became MGM’s In The Good Old Summertime with a very young Van Johnson and Judy Garland. Then it was back to the original play, retitled “She Loves Me,” and adapted as a Broadway musical with book by Joe Masteroff and music and lyrics by the team who only 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 nearly ninety years, and continues to captivate and delight in CLOSBC’s jewel of a revival, with a gawkily winning Susannah Hall as Amalia Balash and a sweetly engaging Jason W. Webb as Georg, falling in love as enchantingly as any musical theater couple ever have.

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,” warbled 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.

Under Stephanie A. Coltrin’s impeccable direction, the entire cast deliver pitch-perfect performances.

There’s no more likeable musical theater leading man around than Webb—with pipes to match, making his Georg the ideal melding of actor and role. Olivier Award-winning Lesli Margherita puts her unique stamp on any part she plays, and the trademark oomph and verve she gives parfumerie clerk Ilona makes the flighty mademoiselle’s two big numbers (“I Resolve” and “A Trip To The Library”) honest-to-goodness showstoppers. Mark Edgar Stephens does terrific work as lothario Kodaly—a man whose nickname should be Suavely Oily—and who like Margherita gets his own pair of songs to sell—the romantic “Ilona” and the dryly ironic “Grand Knowing You.” An adorable Ryland Dodge makes squeaky-voiced, squeaky-clean delivery boy Arpad the most adoption-worthy character since Annie, his offer to “Try Me” proving absolutely irresistible. It’s loads of fun to see Todd Nielsen (more commonly winning raves as a director these days) doing delightful work as the sycophantic Sipos (curiously the only character with a Hungarian accent), lending those splendid Nielsen pipes to the clerk’s personal “Yes Is Best” philosophy in “Perspective.” John Hall gives parfumerie owner Mr. Maraczek warmth and good humor, and warbles the Viennese waltz “Days Gone By” with just old-fashioned zest. Finally, virtually reinventing the role of lovelorn Amalia is the uniquely talented Hall. No prim and proper wallflower this Miss Balash. Instead, Hall makes her a woman who hides her loneliness behind a geeky, goofy façade, and though some poignancy may be lost in this broader-than-usual portrayal, Hall’s comedic gifts (and her glorious soprano) make it an even trade-off.

Lending all-around outstanding support are ensemble members Kim Arnett, Kai Chubb, Craig Donnelly, Jasmine Ejan, Brad Fitzgerald, Truly Magyar, Ashley Nordland, Marc Oka, Isaac Olson, Ramone Owens, and Rory Patterson, with Oka getting She Love’s Me’s standout cameo role, that of the harried-est head waiter in Budadpest, a part and scene which Oka steals magnificently.

Heather Castillo choreographs musical numbers “A Romantic Atmosphere” and “Twelve Days To Christmas” with her accustomed flair. Musical director extraordinaire Daniel Gary Busby conducts the supremely harmonious CLOSBC orchestra. Christopher Beyries’ original set design gives us an exquisitely rendered Hungarian parfumerie, both inside and out (and other locales as well), which Darrell J. Clark lights equally exquisitely. Christa Armendariz’s period costumes are a bevy of 1930s European perfection. John Feinstein’s sound design provides a just-right mix of musical instruments and voices. John W. Calder III is stage manager.

2011 looks to be the season that puts Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities back at the top of the Southland CLO map, with The Light In The Piazza, Company, and Thoroughly Modern Millie completing the year. If She Loves Me is any indication, James A. Blackman, III and company can expect a year filled with kudos … and droves of award nominations as well. She Loves Me is a gem of a musical, and in CLOSBC’s hands, there’s no more brightly polished one in town.

CLO of South Bay Cities, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.
–Steven Stanley
February 22, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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