Twelve Angry Jurors

By Geary Danihy

Sitting down to watch “She Loves Me,” the inaugural production of the Westport Country Playhouse’s 80th season, is like dining at a fine European restaurant and being presented with a cart filled with Old World pastries, each more delicious than the last. As you work your way through the selections you may wonder whether the fare might just be a bit too rich, but carried away by the lush surroundings, delightful music and impeccable service, you throw caution to the winds and simply sit back and enjoy.

“She Loves Me,” which is based on “Illatszertar” (Parfumery), a 1937 play by Hungarian-born Miklós László, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (the team best known for “Fiddler on the Roof”), tells the story of the owner and staff of Maraczek’s, a shop that caters to the cosmetic needs of the up-scale citizens of Budapest in the 1930s. Though many may not be familiar with the musical – it opened in 1963, the same year as “Hello, Dolly,” and had a limited run – anyone who has seen the 1940 Jimmy Stewart film “The Shop Around the Corner,” the 1949 musical “In the Good Old Summertime” with Judy Garland, or the more contemporary “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, will be familiar with the plot: boy and girl correspond without knowing each other’s identity; they meet (still unaware of their “pen pal” personas) and antipathy blossoms; the couple fuss and fight but finally all is revealed and the two live…well, you know.

The plot is slight – we’re talking dessert here, not entrée – but this particular Sachertorte has been confected with the best of ingredients and is presented with impeccable taste. Under the superb direction of Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s artistic director, a fine cast of professionals creates as engaging a group of characters as you could ever hope to come across.

At the forefront are Jessica Grové as Amalia Balash and Jeremy Peter Johnson as Georg Nowack, the couple carrying on the epistolary love affair. The two spark nicely in their confrontational scenes and individually deliver their numbers with great style and verve – highlights for these two are Grové’s “Vanilla Ice Cream” number (in which she gets to show off her impressive vocal range) and Johnson’s irrepressible “She Loves Me,” which immediately follows. As good as these two performances are, it’s Nancy Anderson as Ilona Ritter who threatens to steal the show. Playing a slightly soiled sales girl, Ritter runs the gamut from droll commentary on the state of her love life to canny connivance as she plans her next conquest in “A Trip to the Library,” a witty number with a bolero tempo.

What makes this production of “She Loves Me” so special is the quality of the performers in support roles. There’s not a false note here – Lenny Wolpe does an excellent turn as the avuncular Mr. Maraczek, and Douglas Sills, as the oleaginous Steven Kodaly, is a delight to watch as he slithers and slides his way through his scenes. Their efforts are ably supported by David Bonnano as a self-important headwaiter, Michael McCormick as Ladislav Sipos, the clerk who goes along to get along, Christopher Shin as the overly eager Arpad Laszlo, and an ensemble of five actors – Alison Cimmet, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Jenny Latimer, Robin Lounsbury and Sam Pinkleton – whose energy never flags throughout the entire evening.

That the production moves as quickly and delightfully as it does is due to Lamos’s creative use of many scenes-in-one that allow the stage crew to re-set the stage without a break in the action. That the entire evening is as visually lush as it is is due to scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s restrained rococo work – yes, it sounds oxymoronic, but Hernandez has used just enough kitsch – with a heavy reliance on chubby cherubs – to create echoes of the vanished Austro-Hungarian empire without allowing the set to be visually overwhelming (one remembers “The Archbishop’s Ceiling,” a Playhouse production of several years ago in which the set all but devoured the performers).

If “She Loves Me” is a sign of what is to come this season at the Playhouse, then the venerable venue’s 80th season – the first under the full control of Lamos and managing director Michael Ross -- should be one to remember.  

“She Loves Me” has extended its run through Saturday, May 15. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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