So most shows are about almost-unrequited love. Oh, we need the happy ending for commercial reasons, but we have to pretend that we can't be sure it's coming. So can you top the setup of She Loves Me, in which two devoted lonely hearts pen pals seem destined never to meet? Sure you can. In this show, they don't realize that they work side by side every day--and they can't stand each other.
She Loves Me was the last middling success (only 303 performances--not a spectacular run) of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick before they endeared themselves to audiences forever with Fiddler on the Roof. Now, Fiddler was an anomaly for Bock; that show was full of generously lyrical, instantly memorable songs, most of which drew explicitly from Jewish folk music. Nothing Bock wrote before or after that was nearly so compelling.
And that includes She Loves Me, a beguiling show full of charming characters and abounding in pleasant music that does what it needs to do quite ably until the houselights come up, whereupon the melodies evaporate from your mind before you've gotten through the lobby. It's as if Bock had reached into a trunk labeled "showtunes," sprinkled them with a little paprika (the story is set in Budapest) and left it at that without putting his soul into the work. (Besides occasionally cribbing from Hungarian-style music by Liszt and Brahms, Bock for no good reason steals from Ravel's Bolero and works in a couple of Latin-style numbers, suggesting that he was often merely using whatever he already had on hand.) The strength of the score is that it's tightly composed, and almost every song--thanks mainly to lyricist Harnick--is tied firmly to its singer.
So in musical terms, She Loves Me is guilty of not being a masterpiece. Fine. It still manages to be highly enjoyable entertainment, and somehow, it stands as one of the season's best productions from the students of the University of Arizona's Arizona Repertory Theatre.
And despite its little faults, She Loves Me is still the second-best of the four major English adaptations of Miklós László's 1937 play Parfumerie. Edging it out is the 1940 nonmusical Hollywood movie The Shop Around the Corner, one of director Ernst Lubitsch's finest, almost bittersweet confections, full of Hungarian flavor despite the presence of the very un-Hungarian James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. (Later versions, the Judy Garland vehicle In the Good Old Summertime and the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan updating, You've Got Mail, use the same plot points but are far removed from the spirit of the original.)
One of the best things about this UA production is that costume designer Adam M. Dill and scene designer Hilary Noxon instantly place us in the sophisticated quarters of 1930s Budapest. The costumes are period- and place-perfect, and the curving, revolving, layered set is a cross between a Fabergé egg and Ukrainian nesting dolls. It takes us to various locales, but principally, it's the interior and exterior of the Maraczek Parfumerie, where we find a small group of characters with varying professional and romantic ambitions selling perfumes and scented soaps to society ladies.
Georg Nowack is one of the salesmen, informally Maraczek's second in command, and he takes an instant dislike to Amalia Balash, a young woman who wrangles herself a job in the shop despite Georg and Maraczek's initial resistance. Georg thinks Amalia is pushy and obnoxious; Amalia thinks Georg is arrogant and condescending. Little do they know that they've already fallen in love as anonymous correspondents in a lonely hearts club.
Remarkably, Georg and Amalia don't hog all the songs. (Let it be said that Matt Marcus' sound design makes everything clearly audible without seeming obviously amplified.) Each of the seven most prominent characters (and one who appears in a single scene) has a significant number and participates in several ensemble segments. In terms of singing and acting, the UA cast is evenly matched at a high level.
Joey Snider, our Georg, has struck me as a bit undeveloped in past productions, but here he rewards the faith the theater faculty has shown in him during the last two years. Snider has developed into an engaging leading man who's not afraid to be a bit unpleasant when the role demands it. He's enthusiastic and nuanced and a fine partner for the Amalia of Alison Pahler, who is confident and assertive and full of stage presence.
The shop's other employees are all quite fine: Michael Mendez gradually revealing himself to be more fatigued than cynical, Jeremy Trigsted full of youthful enthusiasm as the delivery boy who wants to be a salesman, Christopher Violett suave and untrustworthy as a ladies' man, and Sarah Spigelman coming off as a brash New York-style romantic-turned-optimistic realist.
Then there's Andrew Goldwasser as the boss, the troubled but well-meaning Mr. Maraczek. Goldwasser expertly makes the transitions from benevolent dictator to villain to victim, and is especially effective in his wistful scenes in the second act.
Richard T. Hanson directs and choreographs with a sure hand, his only fault being that he tends to have the many unexpected little tendernesses between the various characters played too brusquely, for laughs. In a show like this, there's nothing wrong with a little honest sentimentality.