It’s Almost Like a Dream

THEATER REVIEW: She Loves Me
Studio 54, New York, May 14, 2016

Everyone talks about “Ice Cream” – Stephen Sondheim had it on his list of Songs I Wished I’d Written. Barbra recorded the famous ballad of nerves “Will He Like Me?”

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 LOVESShe 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.

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One comment

  1. Susan · · Reply

    Hi Josh,
    Really enjoyed your review. She Loves Me is my favorite musical, and I’ve seen many versions, most retaining much of the charm, but with serious flaws. This one is a resounding success. Perhaps the best staging of this musical ever. You sum up why the book is one of the best in musical theater so perfectly. I disagree with you on a couple of points. First, the characterizations are quite appropriate to the period. If you’ve seen the 1940 film, “The Shop Around the Corner,” or any 1930s films starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford or Bette Davis as a shopgirls trying to make their way in a world suffering the economic devastation of the Great Depression, both Benanti and Krakowski are very much believable in the 1934 setting. And the jump to the operetta-like style of singing was common in the period. Watch any Jeanette MacDonald or Nelson Eddy film. The criticism might be that they are “too American,” but remember that Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” was a 1928 German film. Female characters in the post-WWI era were often seen as energetic makers of their own fortunes rather than the put-upon Victorian era heroine. The second disagreement that I have is that Georg is not purposefully mean to Amalia after he discovers that she is Dear Friend. Instead, he realizes that in order to win her affection, he must first win her as himself. In the song, She Loves Me, he implies that revealing himself too soon would likely alienate her. Thanks again for you lovely review of a very lovely production.

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