Center REP's She Loves Me a great old-fashioned romantic musical

Pat Craig
Contra Costa Times
September 8, 2010

Romance used to be a staple in American musical comedy -- sappy, sloppy, softhearted romance, following the timeworn trail of boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again (or vice-versa).

It's getting harder to find nowadays. But sometimes a simple (and by "simple," you naturally mean "complicated") romance works beautifully, as it does in Center REPertory Company's production of the 1963 musical, She Loves Me.

As one of the late arrivals in the ol' softy school of musical theater, She Loves Me didn't have a particularly distinguished run. The only song that made it beyond the proscenium to become a hit was the title tune, a bouncy, goofy, guy-in-love ditty delivered for Center REP with maximum impact by Ryan Drummond, who plays perfume store clerk Georg Nowack. He sings the tune when he learns in the second act his secret pen-pal crush is a young woman he knows well, Amalia Balash (Kelsey Venter), and if she doesn't love him now, she will soon, even though she hated him just hours earlier.

It's that squishy sort of puppy and kitten romance that has been part of our heritage since Jimmy Cagney shoved half a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face. But the point is it works and casts a charm over everyone; even guys with hairy knuckles and the beef jerky tan that comes with a life spent outdoors were smiling during Tuesday's opening night.

In a word, the production, directed by Robert Barry Fleming, is wonderful, and delivers a version of the much-revived show that is about as good as it can be. To begin with, Drummond and Venter are absolutely terrific in their roles. And the piece is helped no end by a clever, highly mobile set by Annie Smart and costume design by Victoria Livingston-Hall. She has created a near-perfect look for the costumes of the period, Europe in the '30s.

The show is also helped by the relatively intimate setting of the Margaret Lesher Theatre, the mid-sized auditorium that brings the action up close, where it should be. She Loves Me is a boutique sort of musical that dazzles more brightly the closer it is to the audience.

And the cast, form leads to ensemble, is delightful. Fleming and his actors have given the show something to watch in every part of the stage. Restaurant scenes turn into funny bits of sly humor at each table (and some amazing comedy from the waiter, played by Evan Boomer).

The music in the show, from the fairly well-known "Vanilla Ice Cream" to the others that come as small surprises, drive the story and offer charming star moments for most of the cast.



She Loves Me a musical throwback with romantic charm!

Clinton Stark
September 8, 2010

Who knew toilet water, Mona Lisa and Häagen-Dazs could make for a near perfect evening of theater? Opening the Center Rep’s 44th season, She Loves Me proves the unimaginable combination irresistible. Perhaps it’s Artistic Director Michael Butler who is striving to “Preserve a Romantic Atmosphere” as this version of the Broadway underdog piles on the charm, the laughs, in a high-spirited production that oozes quality. At times it event felt like I was watching a touring Broadway show, something you might see by SHN in San Francisco.

The story concerning two amorous pen pals who work at the same department store won’t exactly engage our minds with deep, twisted Martin McDonagh-like sub-plots. Then again, that’s not the point. We’ve seen this material many times before, including at least three times in film, the most recent being the serviceable You’ve Got Mail (1998) starring Tom Hanks. But if the goal is to entertain, and to bring on the “doey eyes” (as my wife and date for the night demonstrated on multiple occasions) then this is the ticket.

Set in 1930s Hungary (yes, I know: typical), Maraczhek’s parfumerie serves as the department store for love; other than conditions of the heart, it serves up musical cigar–or candy–boxes, toilet water, and Mona Lisa cream.

Look! Autumn!
Managed by the aging, but feisty owner (played by Richard Farrell) who reminisces in “Days Gone By,” shoppers are treated to personable customer service, always with a catchy thank-you tune upon departure. Sales clerks (Noel Anthony, Jackson Davis, Ryan Drummond) jockey for customers. The economy is tough and jobs are in scarce supply. Soon a peppy Amalia Balash (Kelsey Venter) arrives and wins a job after selling the ever-impossible music box for “ten-and-six.”

Opening night had a few pacing problems, but this impeccable cast should easily be up to speed by now. Director Michael Butler swore the audience to secrecy so if you want to know the ending you'll have to attend.

Three critical elements stand-out in this production: the casting, the singing, and the stage design. In combination, it’s an impressive experience.

As the romantic lead, Ryan Drummond delivers just the right dollop of wit and swagger. When he first meets anonymous pen pal Amalia Balash (Kelsey Venter) at the Cafe Imperiale, he plays his dual identity with aplomb.

Look! Winter!
Jackson Davis, who I last saw in the cerebral Opus at TheatreWorks, is comic gold. A lovable coward, his advice in 5 words: Do not lose your job!

And Brittany Ogle shines in her recollection of a visit to the library, milking each literary revelation (“Suddenly, I can see the magic of books!”) for a laugh. Legally Blonde seems to owe something here.

The musical pieces are swift enough to maintain a crisp pace. My favorites are the larger ensemble numbers. Thankfully, the “wrong crowd” was dining at the Cafe Imperiale on this evening, as the song (“Tango Tragique”) and dance that ensued was inspired. Think Dancing With the Stars minus the celebrity comebacks. All the while, Evan Boomer as the particular waiter, dotes over restaurant patrons in a series of hysterical bits. Later, holiday shoppers storm Maraczek’s with only 12… 10… 4 days to go before Christmas. It looked partly Gap commercial, with splashes of flamboyant color–wonderful costumes.

Scenic designer Annie Smart has a showcase here with a lavish set that sparkles. Alternating between store front and interior, there is a lot of detailing to admire–the color tones, soaring shelving, a large antique clock. Two majestic doors anchor the shop.

Not everything is perfect. The aforementioned storyline is straight and narrow. Act 2 slows a bit and we get the woe-is-me routines; necessary, but somewhat dull, especially given the stellar first half. While most of the singing is decent, a few times the actors fail to hit the higher notes.

I admit that the musical is not my favorite format; to make matters possibly worse, here’s one written in the 1930?s. Oh, no, this is going to be a drab rehash, I thought as we fought our way to Walnut Creek through a jam on 680 North. However, I was completely wrong. The dialog is surprisingly fresh and definitely sarcastic enough at times to tickle this theater-goer. In the end, Center Rep’s She Loves Me proves that romance and the good-in-people never go out of style.

And the Häagen-Dazs?

Quite possibly my favorite intermission snack of all time–and it wasn’t the least bit salty.

She Loves Me
Center REP Theatre
4 out of 5 stars
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed and Choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming
Music Direction by Brandon Adams
Through Oct. 10, 2010



You Will Love She Loves Me at Center REP

Kedar K. Adour, M.D.
September 8, 2010

She Loves Me is a romantic, old-fashioned show that does not have any songs that will keep you humming on exit from the theater but will keep you smiling for days. It is the 1963 musical version of Parfumierie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo that was made in a successful 1940s film The Shop Around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. A film musical version was the 1949 In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and another non-musical film You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Center Rep has rounded up a great cast and superlative production team creating an escapist evening to make you forget problems of the day. The familiar plot revolves around Georg Nowack (Ryan Drummond) and Amalia Balash (Kelsey Venter) both employees in the same shop who are consistently at odds and unaware that each is the other's secret pen pal. Other denizens of the 1930s Maraczek’s Parfumiere are owner Mr. Maraczek (Richard Farrell), clerk and lothario Steven Kodaly (Noel Anthony), clerk and Kodaly’s paramour Ilona Ritter (Brittany Ogle), insecure older clerk Ladislav Sipos (Jackson Davis) and bicycle delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (Jason Hite). Headwaiter (Even Boomer) and diminutive Dane Paul Andres as his busboy receive laughs and applause for their routine with “A Romantic Atmosphere” adding to the stylistic choreography by the ensemble.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s music and lyrics smoothly carry the book forward and every so often insert a showstopper with the final one being “She Loves Me”, sung and danced by Ryan Drummond. Drummond’s excellent tenor voice adds class to his acting skills and is fine match for Kelsey Venter’s accomplished musical comedy soprano. Noel Anthony’s powerful baritone and slick interpretation of a lothario almost steals all the singing and acting accolades. However, the humor is split between Brittany Ogle who sings and dances up a storm with “A Trip to the Library” and Jackson Davis who steps forward to defend his subservience with “Perspective.” Jason Hite can be considered as the male ingénue with his role as delivery boy later to be promoted to sales clerk. Surprise, surprise, Richard Farrell has a fine singing voice.

Annie Smart’s attractive innovatively utilitarian multiunit set allows the action to move smoothly. She must share accolades with Victoria Livingston-Hall’s gorgeous costumes. Brandon Adams rightfully keeps the musical accompaniment of the four member band (playing multiple instruments) unobtrusive There is not a single defective facet of Fleming’s directing and choreography but there is a spark missing and he fails to receive the standing ovation garnered by his superlative All Shook Up. In summary: Highly recommended and well worth the price of admission to see this two hour and 20 minute show (with intermission) that races along because time flies when you are having fun.




You Won't Want to Miss This Delightful Production

George Heymont
My Cultural Landscape
September 10, 2010

Center Rep opened its season in Walnut Creek with a production of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's beloved 1963 musical, She Loves Me. Based on the film The Shop Around the Corner (1940) -- which also provided the plot for In The Good Old Summertime (1949) and You've Got Mail (1998) -- She Loves Me focuses on the budding romance between two pen pals who don't know that they both work in the same parfumerie. All they know is that, as they pour their hearts out to each other in their letters, they are learning about the "true" person who is their "Dear Friend." At work, they despise each other.

I was fortunate enough to see two performances of the original production, which was directed by Harold Prince and featured a cast headed by Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy, Nathaniel Frey, and Barbara Baxley in supporting roles. Although the original production was a financial, She Loves Me! went on to achieve cult status as one of the great Broadway musicals and has become quite popular in regional and community theatre circles.

The version used by Center Rep eliminates Georg's "Tango Tragique." Yet She Loves Me still stands as a rare example of brilliantly integrated writing for t he musical stage. Songs and dialogue are so deftly interwoven that the plot moves forward effortlessly. Even though the score was performed with a reduced orchestration (only two violins), the emotional clarity and glowing charm of the score continues to delight listeners nearly 40 years after the show's Broadway premiere.

To make things even better, She Loves Me was performed in the 297-seat Margaret Lesher Theatre, the perfect environment for such an intimate show. Ryan Drummond's terse, almost nerdy performance as Georg Novak often made me think of Two and a Half Men's co-star, Jon Cryer. Jason Hite (who shone in Berkeley Rep's recent world premiere of Girlfriend) was delightful as Arpad. Noel Anthony displayed solid vocal chops as the incorrigible roué, Steven Kodaly. Richard Farrell was charming as Mr. Maraczek. Jackson Davis a fine Ladislav Sipos. During the scene at the Cafe Imperiale, Evan Boomer had a nice cameo as the waiter while Dane Paul Andres alternated between balletic grace and comedic clumsiness as the wide-eyed busboy.

The two main female roles were taken by Kelsey Venter (was charming as Amalia Balash) and Brittany Ogle (had a firm handle on Ilona, the "sadder but wiser girl" who gets dumped by Kodaly but meets a sweet optometrist on her trip to the library).

Center Rep's production of She Loves Me was pertly directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming. Despite some occasional pitch problems (onstage as well as in the orchestra), the opening night performance had the audience laughing heartily and obviously enjoying the show from start to finish.

She Loves Me remains a remarkably solid piece of musical theatre whose expert craftsmanship continues to amaze viewers after nearly four decades (the sheer economy used to mark the transition from one season to another is a master stroke of theatre). In an age of sexting, texting, and wireless communications, it has not lost an ounce of its romantic charm.

With a smartly designed unit set by Annie Smart and costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall, She Loves Me continues through October 10 at the Lesher Center for the Arts. If you've never seen the show (or are a devoted fan of She Loves Me) you won't want to miss this delightful production.