Ukraine. COVID. Climate change. A world of refugees. Authoritarians abroad and at home. Tragedies of today and tomorrow. But, at the Signature Theater, comedy tonight, in the form of She loves Me, music even sweeter than vanilla ice cream.
Its creators, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, were among the most successful songwriting duos of the Broadway musical’s ‘golden age’, which followed She loves Me with the greatest musical ever performed in Ukraine, Violin on the roof.
Set in the late 1930s in a seemingly peaceful and prosperous Budapest (Hungary during the Depression era was actually a right-wing authoritarian state), She loves Me has the simplest configuration. Two employees of a cosmetics store, Georg and Amalia, constantly bicker at work. Simultaneously, they engage in anonymous romantic correspondence that began with a response to a “lonely hearts” newspaper ad. Complications ensue, centering on a charged blind date, in the tradition of “will they or won’t they”. The storyline proved compelling, like Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Perfumery resulted not only in She loves Me but to three different film adaptations.
“Irresistible” is just the word for the Bock/Harnick songs, performed to perfection by Signature’s top-flight cast. As romantic leader Amalia Balash, a demanding soprano role created by the great Barbara Cook, Ali Ewoldt has the versatility to reach the heights of “Vanilla Ice Cream” while tenderly conveying the longing for “Dear Friend.” It begins with a little vocal gem, “No More Candy”, which, like “My Time of Day” by guys and dolls, shows that a short, quiet song can be a highlight. His Amalia is a winning mix of intelligence, ardor, insecurity and passion.
She loves Me gives all the main characters moments to shine. Amalia’s love interest Georg Nowack (Deven Kolluri) epitomizes pre-date jitters in “Tonight at Eight” while portraying a marked increase in the physicality of male confidence in the second act’s title track. Store owner Mr. Maraczek (Lawrence Redmond) fondly recalls his romantic youth in “Days Gone By,” and his response to the loss of love is a graceful counterbalance to the exuberance of the younger characters. .
As Steven Kodaly, Caddish ladies’ man Jake Lowenthal gives Illona Ritter (Maria Rizzo) song and dance in the sultry “Illona,” the pair practically flooding the audience with pheromones. Rizzo, a marvelous comedic actor with a mighty belt, also puts a very sexy spin on the often more innocent “A Trip to the Library” in the second act. Meanwhile, Lowenthal bids a carefree farewell to his former colleagues in “Grand Knowing You.”
Longtime Signature favorite Bobby Smith, as cowardly confessed clerk Ladislav Sipros, explains his approach to life in the humorous ‘Perspective’. A character sometimes forgotten, Sipros is, in Smith’s performance, someone who watches, listens, gently guides and cares about others in the small world of perfumery. One of the joys of attending live theater, even a show I’ve seen many times, is having an actor show me something I’ve never seen in a character before, and Smith’s Sipros does it here.
Emmanuel Elliot Key, as Laszlo, an enthusiastic delivery man, and David Schlumph, as an overbearing but ultimately kind butler in a cafe, have a lot of fun with “Try Me” and “A Romantic Atmosphere”, respectively. the latter requiring significant tenor chops. . The work of the whole, as customers of the shop, patrons of the café, etc. is flawless. Kelly Crandall D’Amboise’s choreography in all scenes – not just bigger numbers like the coffee shop sequence – allows the production to move intelligently and precisely.
What again impresses me upon seeing this production is the sheer craftsmanship of Bock and Harnick’s work, evident, for example, in the intricacy of the lines exchanged between the ensemble members in the sequence of store opening. Their craftsmanship is matched only by the attention to detail and nuance of director Matthew Gardiner and the designers who create a charming world for this love story.
Set designer Lee Savage’s perfumery is all pastel, right down to the bottles on the shelves, with smaller sets rotating to create the boutique’s back office and cafe. Beds glide smoothly for a hospital room and Amalia’s room.
Adam Honoré’s lighting design, in addition to always keeping the focus of a scene in its place, coordinates very well with the dominant costume colors in certain scenes. For example, there’s a lavender hue to the lighting as Illona, in a striking purple dress, performs “A Trip to the Library.” Alejo Vietti’s costumes, initially in a more everyday mode that blends with the boutique’s pastel hues, become brighter and bolder as the action progresses and the Christmas cheer approaches. Amalia’s velvety red dress for the date with her “dear friend” is particularly gorgeous.
Jon Kallbfleisch’s 10-piece band perfectly accompanies the singers, like the rest of the production, making the details crystal clear. My only complaint is that, given the power of the vocals and instrumentalists, it seemed pointless to crank up the sound system volume so high in the MAX theater space.
Like some of the great goofy Hollywood comedies of the 1930s (e.g., Vacation), She loves Me is more than just a “rom-com” offering escape in troubled times. By illuminating the real emotions of believable characters, he gives his audience a sense of what is most valuable in human life, doing so in a delightfully entertaining way. Signatures She loves Me does this as well as any show I’ve seen.
Duration: Approximately 2h35, including an intermission.
She loves Me plays through April 24, 2022 at the MAX at the Signature Theater – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40 to $108)call (703) 820-9771 or purchase in line. Ticket discount information is available here.
the She loves Me the program is available online here.
COVID safety: Signature Theater requires all audiences to provide proof of vaccination and wear a mask to attend all live public performances and events in indoor venues. Signature’s COVID safety plans are available here.
Subtitles for She loves Me will be available for each show via the GalaPro application.