A tale almost as old as time returns magically, musically to life as Chance Theater gives Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me a perfectly marvelous intimate staging just in time for the holiday season.
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 delight in Chance Theater’s captivating intimate revival, with Stanton Kane Morales’s Georg Nowack and Erika C. Miller’s Amalia Balash 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 Sarah Figoten Wilson’s assured direction, a fourteen-member cast deliver all-around sparkling performances, from a pair of pitch-perfect romantic leads to a half-dozen delightful supporting roles to an ensemble whose each and every member gets his or her chance to shine.
It’s hard to imagine a more spot-on choice to play Georg than Morales, an Everyman every bit as charismatically winning as the handsomest matinee idol, abundantly charming and with gorgeous tenor pipes to match.
Miller has never been better, nor better cast, than she is as Amalia, a woman whose prickly exterior hides a heart of romantic mush, the Chance Theater treasure’s lovely legit soprano a perfect fit with Bock’s exquisite melodies and her delightful comedic gifts demonstrated in equal measure.
As for the one-two punch of Miller’s “Vanilla Ice Cream” followed almost instantaneously by Morales’s “She Loves Me,” the pair of songs are not only splendidly performed showstoppers, they represent some of the best musical theater writing ever.
Comedienne extraordinaire Camryn Zelinger bubbles like pink champagne as parfumerie clerk Ilona, making the flighty mademoiselle’s two big numbers (“I Resolve” and “A Trip To The Library”) every bit show highlights they are written to be.
A terrific Taylor Stephenson plays lothario Kodaly, a man whose nickname should be Suavely Oily, as suavely and oily as can be, whether warbling the romantic “Ilona” or the dryly ironic “Grand Knowing You.”
Daniel Jared Hersh couldn’t be more irresistible as squeaky-clean delivery boy Arpad, his performance (and his “Try Me” in particular) revealing a young Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane rolled into one.
Corky Loupe delights as the sycophantic Sipos, whose “Yes Is Best” philosophy gets expresed in “Perspective,” while Beach Vickers plays parfumerie owner Mr. Maraczek with abundant gusto, singing Viennese waltz “Days Gone By” to emotional effect.
In She Love’s Me’s standout cameo role as the harried-est head waiter in Budapest, Matt Takahashi proves himself a comedic/vocal talent to be reckoned with.
Ensemble members Elizabeth Adabale, Eric T. Anderson, Erica Schaeffer, Katelyn Spurgin, Takahashi, and Shafik Wahhab provide expert support throughout, with special mention due Anderson and Takahashi’s lady customers and Wahhab’s private eye with an untraceable Eastern European accent. (He can’t possibly be from Budapest since no one else in the cast has an accent.)
Musical kudos go out to Tina Nguyen’s gypsy violinist, who not only provides local color but also sweetens pianist Ryan O’Connell’s letter-perfect musical accompaniment. (O’Connell deserves bonus points for transposing the musical’s full Broadway orchestrations to a single piano as well.)
On a less positive note, the intrusive insertion of the Gershwins’ “Someone To Watch Over Me” and snippets of other period tunes proves the production’s sole creative misstep, and though Adabale’s vocals are gorgeous indeed, no one had better dare mess with Bock and Harnick. Period.
Choreographer Christopher M. Albrect choreographs musical numbers “A Romantic Atmosphere” and “Twelve Days To Christmas” with imagination and panache, while musical director Stephenson elicits fabulous vocal performances from his stellar cast.
Bruce Goodrich’s original set design gives us a jewel-box of a Hungarian parfumerie, one which unfolds to reveal multiple interiors in front of a colorfully painted backdrop setting the Budapest scene. (A quick change between hospital room and Budapest flat gets quickly and niftily rendered as well.)
Goodrich’s period costumes are a bevy of 1930s European treats, with Jonathan Daroca’s lighting, Amy Ramirez’s props, and Ryan Brodkin’s sound design complementing sets and costumes every step of the way.
Jonathan Castanien is stage manager. Michael Martinez-Hamilton is assistant director. Laura M. Hathaway plays Amalia December 19-21.
I’ve seen She Loves Me three times before, but never in as intimate a space as the Chance’s, one that suits this jewel of a musical to a T.
Simply put, performances plus material plus setting add up to my favorite Chance Theater holiday musical ever.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
December 7, 2014
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio