Monday, March 21, 2016

She Loves Me: Bock and Harnick’s Musical Shop

Zachary Levi and Michael McGrath in She Loves Me. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Blithe, melodic and entrancing, She Loves Me, which recently opened in a pleasing revival at the Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54, is one of those Broadway musicals with a complicated lineage. It began as a 1937 play called Parfumerie by the Hungarian writer Miklós László (it was the last of his plays to be produced in Budapest before he fled to America to escape the Nazis). Three years later it furnished the source material for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, perhaps the greatest of all Hollywood romantic comedies, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. The movies recycled it again in two considerably inferior versions, a 1949 musical called In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson and an updated Nora Ephron comedy, You’ve Got Mail (1998), with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. And in 1963 Joe Masteroff (three years before he wrote the book for Cabaret) and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (a mere year before they furnished the score for Fiddler on the Roof) turned it into She Loves Me.

Masteroff’s book may be a necessary simplification of Samson Raphaelson’s screenplay – one of the peaks of screenwriting during the big-studio era – but it doesn’t feel like a reduction. He and Bock and Harnick are faithful to the narrative, to the feel of the material (one of those Depression-era Mittel-Europa fantasias like Zoo in Budapest and The Good Fairy), to the genre mix (romantic comedy with elements of high comedy sanded in), and to the tonal complexity. The story takes place in a Budapest parfumerie where the assistant manager, Georg Nowack, and the latest hire, Amalia Balash, are constantly at odds. Unbeknownst to them both, however, they are already lovers, at least in print. They have been corresponding through a lonely-hearts club, their letters addressed to “Dear Friend,” and though they have yet to meet each believes the other to be a soulmate: sensitive, ruminative, expressive, cultivated, with a passionate love for literature, art and music. Toward the end of act one, Georg discovers that “Dear Friend” is Amalia, and his attitude toward her in the workplace changes and, slowly, in response, so does hers toward him. Not until the last minutes of the musical does he reveal the truth to her. The backdrop for this romance is the small, intimate community of the parfumerie, Maraczek’s, which like any shop has its own idiosyncratic culture and thorny human interactions. Maraczek treats Georg like a son, inviting him regularly to dinner at his home, until an anonymous letter informs him that his wife is having an affair with one of his clerks and he assumes it must be Georg. It doesn’t occur to him that the man who is cuckolding him might be the narcissistic playboy Kodaly, who – in a subplot Masteroff added – is also sleeping with the shop’s cashier, Ilona Ritter. Maraczek’s heartbreak (and the turmoil his misapprehension causes in his relationship with Georg) adds a melancholy note. The other employees are Ladislav Sipos, Georg’s best friend, a cautious family man who goes out of his way to avoid any conflict that might imperil his job, and Arpad, the bike-riding messenger boy who dreams of ascending the ranks to salesman. (The musical doesn’t make this explicit, but Sipos’ terror of being fired, like Amalia’s desperation to land a job after the last store she worked for closes its doors, are reflections of the period in which the story is set. The Shop Around the Corner doesn’t underscore this idea either, but a 1940 audience wouldn’t have to be reminded of the economic realities from which America, too, was just beginning to extricate itself.)

Though as a child I was lucky enough to see Bock and Harnick’s breakthrough musical, Fiorello! (which won the Pulitzer Prize), in its Broadway run, I didn’t become familiar with She Loves Me until, in college, I added the original cast album to my collection. The show was a moderate success; it ran for not quite a year. But the score was abundant enough to warrant a two-record vinyl set, and like many other musicals buffs I fell in love with it. (Serendipitously, I discovered The Shop Around the Corner right around the same time.) That glorious recording of one of Bock and Harnick’s best scores is mostly famous now because Barbara Cook, half a dozen years after winning her first generation of fans in The Music Man, played Amalia, but though she brings tender, touching shadings of tremulousness and surprise to rapturous ballads like “Will He Like Me?” (which Streisand recorded on one of her early albums), “Dear Friend” and “Ice Cream,” it’s the English stage actor Daniel Massey as Georg who has always struck me as the defining emotional presence in the cast. Over the years he has remained the Georg closest to pulling off – at least in the songs – what Jimmy Stewart did with the role on screen. I wish I’d been able to catch him in the part, especially since I saw a tape of his magnificent performance as the Duke opposite Juliet Stevenson in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure.

Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski in She Loves Me. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Much as I enjoyed the current She Loves Me, the Amalia and Georg are not its strongest elements. Zachary Levi, who plays Georg, is affable and skillful, and his version of the title song has some of the buoyant spirit of the Ray Bolger rendition of “Once in Love with Amy” from Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley? – high praise. But his acting skims the surface of the character; it doesn’t allow for any legitimate low notes. That may be equally the fault of the director, Scott Ellis, whose preference is for a light, speedy presentation of the musical, just as it was in 1993, when he staged the Roundabout’s last revival, with Boyd Gaines as Georg and Judy Kuhn as Amalia. The problem with Laura Benanti’s Amalia is more complicated. Benanti is one of our most gifted musical-theatre stars, and most of the time I’ve loved her work – especially when she played the dizzy Candela in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Sadie Stone, the burgeoning country star on the run from an abusive ex, on the backstage-musical TV series Nashville last season. She’s one of the rare singing actresses who has the wit and lunacy for comic roles and the musical and dramatic chops for straight ones, and she can sing in a range of styles. (Listen to her torch ballad “Sad Song” on one Nashville episode.) But when she plays ingénue parts like Amalia – or Amy in the Encores! mounting of The Most Happy Fella two years ago – she has a preference for the kind of whipped-cream operetta-soprano musicality that I find insipid even when it’s provided by someone as talented as Benanti. In her dialogue scenes in She Loves Me, Benanti is funny and loose, even though her style is perhaps too modern for the setting. (She could get away with it in, say, a Comden-Green period musical like Wonderful Town, but not quite as a shopgirl in 1930s Budapest.) But the moment she hits one of those lilting ballads, all that vocal finesse becomes uninteresting.

The supporting cast carries the show. The ebullient Jane Krakowski plays Ilona, whose determination to find a man who will treat her better than Kodaly leads her to an unlikely offstage beau, a bookish optometrist she enshrines late in the second act in “A Trip to the Library.” Krakowski proffers disarming performances of this song and, earlier, of “I Resolve,” and her pas de deux with Gavin Creel (as Kodaly) when he seduces her with “Ilona” is one of the high points of the evening. (It’s also the highlight of Warren Carlyle’s choreography.) Krakowski has the shimmery glow of a small-town beauty – just as she did twenty-five years ago when she played Madge in Picnic at Williamstown – wed to the been-around-the-block canniness you associate with hard-boiled dames in thirties movie musicals; the last performer to play wised-up and vulnerable at the same time with this kind of success may have been Joan Blondell. Creel, who was Claude in the Broadway revival of Hair, parodies Kodaly’s sexual voraciousness and his peacock self-delight, and it’s a smart approach. (He’s playing a part Jack Cassidy created in 1963.) Michael McGrath, last seen on Broadway in the Roundabout’s On the Twentieth Century, is younger than most of the actors who’ve been cast as Sipos, but his comic timing is, as always, precise. Both Peter Bartlett as the Headwaiter in the café scene at the end of act one and Nicholas Barasch as the eager beaver Arpad get their laughs, and they’re enjoyable enough to watch that you don’t mind very much that they go after those laughs a trifle too aggressively. Best of all is Byron Jennings – who never disappoints – as the shop owner Maraczek. Jennings underscores Maraczek’s fondness for Georg, and the kick he gets out of his protégé’s youthfulness (which, as the “Days Gone By” number makes clear, reminds him of his own salad days), so when he makes the error of believing that Georg has betrayed him, his dismay, exhibited in explosions of temper that both baffle and wound Georg, is very affecting.

The production moves quickly – perhaps too quickly: one or two of the songs are played at a faster tempo than Bock set for them. The staging of the “Romantic Atmosphere” café number is unfortunate. This is the fourth version of She Loves Me I’ve seen and I still don’t know what a choreographer is supposed to do with “A Romantic Atmosphere,” which seems to come from some other (more raucous) musical. Carlyle sure didn’t find the answer; he dials it up, which just exacerbates the problem. But with David Rockwell’s candy-box sets, Jeff Mahshie’s lovely period costumes, and Donald Holder’s warm lighting, it’s a handsome show – and, despite its shortcomings, a satisfying one.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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