Theater: High spirits

‘She Loves Me’ sets the mood for a cheerful holiday

By Charles Brousse

Call it “charming,” “lighthearted,” “joyful” or any other word that expresses a similar quality—I think that if you attend San Francisco Playhouse’s production of She Loves Me and don’t feel your spirits begin to dance, you’re a potential bedmate for grumpy old Scrooge. Especially during this holiday season, with disturbing news from around the world and uncertainty about what lies ahead, the show is a reminder of what people can accomplish when they aren’t throwing bullets, bombs and insults at one another.

She Loves Me’s journey from being a “forgotten gem” of the American musical theater to relative prominence (nominated for best revival of a musical at the 2016 Tonys and now enjoying multiple productions throughout the country) has been an unusual one. It began with an obscure 1937 play entitled Parfumerie by the Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo, which centered on the awkward situation created when two young employees of a high-end perfume shop in Budapest become emotionally involved with their secret pen pals, only to discover that they have been corresponding with each other. While telling their story, Laszlo also used the small details surrounding the interactions of customers and staff to open a window on what life was like among upperclass Hungarians of his day.

Somehow, the story made its way to Hollywood, where it became the basis for a Jimmy Stewart romantic comedy (The Shop Around the Corner, 1940) and a movie musical (In the Good Old Summertime, 1949) before composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick decided to adapt it for the stage. The pair had already received the 1959 Pulitzer and Tony awards for Fiorello! and were considered to be among Broadway’s elite. After adding up-and-coming Joe Masteroff as librettist, and with the backing of legendary producer/director Harold Prince, the team debuted She Loves Me on Broadway in 1963. Hopes were high. But the show received mixed reviews and ran for only 302 performances, losing all the investors’ money in the process.

When asked in a Los Angeles Times interview last June why he thought this had happened, Harnick said that he couldn’t explain it, nor could he explain the enormous success of Fiddler on the Roof, another Bock/Harnick collaboration that opened in 1964 and endured for eight years.

My view is that the two can’t be compared. Using an analogy normally applied to paintings,  Fiddler, in common with other mega musicals like Oklahoma and South Pacific, is a wide canvas—full of engaging subplots and characters, historical references and musical styles. By contrast, despite its two hour-plus running time, She Loves Me is a miniature whose simple romantic core, clearly evident from the outset, is expressed through a series of delightful waltz- and tango-based songs.

There have to be just the right production values in place for a miniature to work, and the Playhouse has them in every department. Susi Damilano skillfully stages the show, assisted by a pair of revolving platforms on the clever set by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott that allows seamless shifts between indoor and outdoor scenes. A small instrumental ensemble headed by director David Aaron Brown provides the necessary musical support, Abra Berman’s 1937-era costuming is spot-on and Kimberly Richards choreography is amusing and well-performed. Thomas J. Munn’s lighting nicely captures the atmosphere of gilded pre-WW2 Budapest.

The acting ensemble is excellent throughout: Monique Hafen (Amalia) and Jeffrey Brian Adams (Georg) stand out as the reluctant lovers. Michael Gene Sullivan is a sympathetic Mr. Maraczek, the parfumerie’s befuddled manager; Nicholas J. Garland is the underdog favorite as the delivery boy who aspires to be promoted to full-fledged floor sales and Joe Estlack, Nanci Zoppi and Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. add their own strong talents to this outstanding group.

She Loves Me will send you out of the theater feeling the holiday spirit and perhaps humming a tune or two. If that prediction betrays a streak of unacknowledged sentimentality on my part, so be it.

NOW PLAYING: She Loves Me runs through January 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (inside the Kensington Park Hotel), San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

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