THEATER REVIEW: She Loves Me
Studio 54, New York, May 14, 2016
But we don’t talk much about the rest of She Loves Me, especially its smart first scene: a twenty-minute interplay of song and dialogue that introduces the show’s parfumerie and everyone who works there, building to our heroine Amalia’s first sale and hiring. It’s musical-theater writing on the level of Show Boat—book written here by Joe Masteroff, who also wrote Cabaret—and we’re quickly pulled in by the show’s effortless charm.
She Loves Me opened the same year that Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl gave their leads bold, brassy showstoppers. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are writing here on a gentler level, with story-telling songs whose lyrics spin out like cotton candy: Ilona’s breathless tale of “A Trip to the Library” to meet her optometrist, or Arpad’s entreaty to his boss to “Try Me” as a clerk.
In the Roundabout revival now on Broadway, we aren’t over-saturated with the show’s inherent sweetness. The cast seems directed to not worry about the period (1930s Budapest), playing everything with more contemporary gestures. This approach mostly works, especially with Jane Krakowski’s hopeless romantic Ilona. (On top of her impressive dancing, she’s lovely in a more sincere, good-hearted role than she usually plays on TV.) But there are a few times the modern feel is too much, especially a bizareely sexual “Romantic Atmosphere” scene in Amalia’s first-date café. The scene includes a long, unprompted dance break that looks like the old-school musical cliché She Loves Me was written to avoid.
As Amalia, one of our main lovers, Laura Benanti is no withering wallflower. Her delivery is often sharp and combative, like a modern screwball comedienne who disguises her vulnerability with each sarcastic quip. But then in song, in contrast with her contemporary comic sensibility, her voice is old-fashioned, operetta-like. Her vocals can feel a touch too formal, but overall, it’s a refreshing take on a leading role every soprano’s played.
I couldn’t help notice Georg, her secret pen pal, is a real jerk. He’s much meaner to Amalia than she ever is in return. Maybe it’s some innate masculine insecurity to being outsold by a woman. Then when he discovers Amalia is his “Dear Friend,” he doesn’t tell her for two whole weeks—an entire act of the show! Somehow, Zachary Levi is so charming, we can forgive his behavior.
One more quibble: The whole final scene feels rushed at Roundabout. George’s revelation to Amalia that he is “Dear Friend” (“I am so sorry about last night…”) was sung a cappella, an odd change, and it would have made more sense for Georg to pull him one of their “Dear Friend” letters. At least, like the rest of the musical, we can’t say this moment overstayed its welcome.