A Beautiful Romance

Robert Taylor
August 31, 2010

Center Repertory Company sends a smart, sweet, quirky musical romance our way with She Loves Me

Kelsey Venter is not a typical musical theater ingenue, light and sweet.

"I've found myself playing more quirky characters," she says.

Ryan Drummond declares that he's been a character actor all his life, never pretending to be a leading man.

So they could be the perfect match for the eleads in She Loves Me, Center Repertory Company's production of the 1963 Broadway musical that bubbles with charm--over some dark undercurrents.

The production, directed by Robert Barry Fleming, previews September 7, and runs through October 10. (Because Center Rep has a large base of season subscribers, the best seats are available for the previews.)

Set in a perfume shop in Budapest in the 1930s, the show began its life as a Hungarian play about a bickering couple who fall in love as anonymous pen pals, but don't discover each other until the last moment of the story.

Parfumerie, as it was titled, was translated to the screen for three notable movies: Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner in 1940; the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime in 1949; and the updated You've Got Mail in 1998. She Loves Me, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, was admired by the critics when it opened on Broadway.

But its tasteful, low-key romance was sandwiched between such mega-hits as Oliver and Hello, Dolly! In spite of the substance, and intelligence, it was not an initial success.

"It's really hard to say why some shows hit that magic button, and others stay in the shadows for a long time," says Drummond, a Shellie Award winner for Contra Costa productions of Annie Get Your Gun and The Producers.

"I can only estimate that the score is just a little bit on the sophisticated side-a notch above your standard musical theater," Drummond says. Venter echoes his sentiment about the story, too.

"Those scenes are so well written, the characters so rich," she says. "Sometimes you don't find that in musicals."

The two have played substantial roles-more like character roles-in other innovative musicals. Venter was Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera for Shotgun Players. Drummond played Ozzie in On the Town for Diablo Theatre Company and Corny Collins in Hairspray for Woodminster in Oakland.

Both were cast in a San Diego production of the play I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. In She Loves Me, Drummond plays Georg, the assistant manager of the Hungarian perfume shop who has been corresponding with a woman he knows only as "Dear Friend." Venter plays Amalia, an unemployed clerk who is initially rejected for a job at the shop, but impresses the owner with an imaginative sales pitch. She, too, has been corresponding with a "Dear Friend."

If that sounds like an operetta-well, only the music does. The characters and the story have their quirks, including affairs, infidelity, an attempted suicide, and Georg's resignation when he is falsely accused of being the lover of the boss' wife.

"Amalia," Venter says, "isn't a standard-issue ingenue. In the midst of the love story, there is a darkness to her. There are darker colors forming all the characters, in the lyrics, in the setting, in the times."

Drummond notes that the relationship is different from routine musicals. "The conflict between two lovers comes entirely from themselves, not the environent, or other characters. Otherwise, they have everything going for them."

"Musically, the score of She Loves Me is a challenge for the performers but rewarding for audiences. It's a "through-score" for singing actors-not just dialogue interrupted with songs. As a result, only the title song and Amalia's celebration of "Ice Cream" have become standard musical fare since the show's premiere 47 years ago.

"The numbers are deeply a part of the narrative," says director Fleming. "They were striving for that, rather than to become hits."

"It's not just fluff, not just flash," Venter observes. "It's really about people who are struggling to find love and move past their fantasy of happiness. To find true partnership, true camaraderie. And it's not until the last moment of the play that it finally happens."