“She Loves Me,” Westport County Playhouse

--Irene Backalenick

“She Loves Me” is, without a doubt, a charming romantic comedy and a charming little musical. Based on the 1937 Hungarian play by Miklos Laszio, the play has had  enough
appeal to last through the years, moving from the written page to film and stage--and Broadway.
           

The musical owed its success to a battery of high-powered talents—Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics)—all of whom had won awards for numerous other shows.

Now in revival at the Westport Country Playhouse, this current production offers a pleasant evening of escapism. Directed by Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s Artistic Director, it moves at a lively pace, with especially endearing moments scattered throughout the piece. (The difficulty lies when one makes comparisons to the later Bock/Harnick triumph—“Fiddler on the Roof.” It is there that the team found its true voice and greatest triumph—with a strong story and memorable songs.)

Yet “She Loves Me” is a bit of fluff which diverts theatergoers from life’s tribulations. George and Amalia have found true love through an exchange of letters, initiated through a lonely hearts’ program. They address each other as “Dear Friend.” The would-be lovers
Are unaware that they are both employed as clerks in Maraczek’s “parfumerie” (perfume and cosmetics shop). In fact, they begin as sparring partners, fighting for their jobs, and gradually fall in love. Budapest of the 1930’s (the  play’s setting) was a time when work was scarce and owners all-powerful. Thus, as clerks are  hired, rehired, or fired, all are desperate to keep their jobs.

In this Westport production, there are pros and cons. On the positive side, besides  Lamos’ sprightly direction, are Riccardo Hernandez’ rococo stage set and Candice Donnelly’s delicious ‘30s costumes. The combined design effort makes for an enchanted world, a veritable box of bonbons wrapped in ribbons.

But the uneven performances are another matter. In the leads, Jessica Grove and Jeremy Peter Johnson lack the rich melodic voices to do justice to the tunes, and their acting disappoints as well. Johnson is a stiff George, while Grove, in contrast, is a hysterical Amalia. Where is her vulnerability, softness, humanity? This over-the-top performance is so one-dimensional that it fails to gather power gradually, building up to the moment when the lovers finally connect.

Other cast members, however, offer solid performances. Both Lenny Wolpe as Mr. Maraczek and Douglas Sills as Kodaly have rich voices which caress the tunes lovingly. Moreover, Sills really inhabits his role as smarmy seducer of women. His exit scene, all swagger and boast, is one of the show’s best moments. Finally, Nancy Anderson is highly appealing as Kodaly’s lady love Ilona, and Michael McCormick puts heart into his role as the anxious clerk Ladislov Sipos.

Whatever its flaws, “She Loves Me” is a cheery way to start off this summer’s escapist entertainments.

This review goes to the Connecticut Post and nytheater.com

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