By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

In these contentious times it's refreshing to celebrate the return of a delightful musical bon-bon. "She Loves Me" offers the theatergoer a carefree, tuneful escape from reality by telling the sweet story of Georg and Amalia, lonely-hearts pen pals who eventually find their happy ending.

Composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and librettist Joe Masterhoffs’ love letter to romance, "She Loves Me," ran on Broadway in the 1960s and again in the 1990s: First for 301 and later for 354 performances.  Its enduring popularity continues as a deserving choice to open the 80th anniversary season of the utterly charming Westport Country Playhouse for a three-week run, which has been extended by popular demand through May 15.

Joe Masterhoff‘s libretto is based on the Hungarian play "Parfumerie" by Miklos Laszlo. The lovely set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez reflects the romantic notion of an elegant perfume shop of 1930’s Budapest with its murals of cherubs, clouds and fashionable ladies.

Two shop employees, Georg and Amelia, don’t hit it off at first and through this basic conflict the twists and turns of the plot are largely and thankfully character driven. It is a musical so we’re not revealing too much to say their relationship has a happy ending. It’s the whole of the production with its wonderful balance of cast, scenery, costumes, lighting, sound and music that amuses and delights the audience from the overture to the final curtain.  

In this delicious telling of the tale the cast is well-paced by Westport's artistic-director Mark Lamos, but a stronger directorial hand would have helped the two principals played by Jeremy Peter Johnson (Georg) and Jessica Grove (Amalia) to take the few rough edges off some of the dialogue and the singing.    
Jessica Grove has a lovely voice, moves beautifully, and is leading-lady pretty, but she sometimes plays the role unevenly; it’s reminiscent of Doris Day’s perpetually indignant attitude in all those hit movies – and a bit too shrill when a lower voice range would have improved the delivery of her lines; as played she doesn’t win the necessary sympathy from the audience. But when she’s good, she’s very good.

Jeremy Johnson’s Georg is a fine, over-all performance, but either the choreographer, Jonathan Butterell, or director Mark Lamos should have helped with the movements in the “She Loves Me” scene which is played in front of the curtain; it sometimes lacked fluidity, but on the whole was delightful.

As one would expect in the second act of a love story, when Amalia sings the joyous "Vanilla Ice Cream" and George announces, in an incredulous way, that "She Loves Me," do the anticipated sparks ignite the fires of passion that have been seething below the surface in these lovelorn people.

The expert  casting of the supporting players deserves special mention because these skilled and talented performers created highly individual and fully dimensional, comedic characters that could help keep this show running for months in any theater.   

Christopher Shin as Arpad sings "Try Me" with the infectious exuberance and eagerness necessary to please his boss Mr. Maraczek, owner of the perfume shop. Maraczek's song remembering his lost youth - "Days Gone By" - is delivered with both pathos and humor by the versatile actor Lenny Wolpe, whose outstanding performance is a joy to watch.

Michael McCormick as harried and groveling store clerk Ladislev Sipos creates a memorable comedic and, at times, tragic portrait of a mediocre anxiety-ridden employee simply trying to survive by never making waves.

Although an ensemble piece, it is difficult not to divert attention from the rest of the cast every time that Nancy Anderson, as Ilona Ritter, delivers a line, does a bit of business, or has a song to sing. Her turn in "A Trip To The Library" is as good as it gets in musical comedy. Ms. Anderson has one of the best-written parts in "She Loves Me," and she knows exactly how to get the most out of every line and note of this first-rate musical book.  It’s probably unfair to say she is reminiscent of the fire and music of a young Bette Davis – and with those mesmerizing eyes – but she’s got IT.

The unique success of "She Loves Me" is that it is not a big, bold, or brassy musical. It is a sweet story told with charming, witty, poignant music, lyrics and libretto with each element clearly and distinctly revealing character and driving the plot. Domonic Sack's sound design is perfection on this score. The clarity of the words as delivered by the cast is technically and artistically produced due in part to Mr. Sack's skill.

Rui Rita magically enhances the mood, set, costumes, and actors with expert lighting. Wayne Barker's musical direction, working with musicians Deane Prouty, Angela Marroy Boerger, Fred Rose, Louis Tucci and Lynette Wardle brings the score to its gloriously melodious life.                    
"She Loves Me" is lovely in its simplicity. It sometimes soars musically, sometimes just whispers, but it always makes you smile in the dark. It's an appropriate gift to offer Westport Country Playhouse audiences on this 80th birthday of a great American theater.

She Loves Me  runs through May 15. Tickets 203-227-4177.  www.WestportPlayhouse.org.  And don’t miss “Dinner with Friends June 1 – 19;  “Happy Days July 6 – 26; I Do! I Do! August 10 – 28; and The Diary of Anne Frank September 28 - October 30.  24 Powers CT (off Rt.1), Westport, Conn.

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