REVIEW: This talent-filled production of an underappreciated musical keeps it simple with a solid, sweet production directed by SCR artistic director David Ivers.
A dozen years ago, a young Fullerton native named Erin Mackey thrilled me and countless other “Wicked” fans when she played Glinda in the national touring production of the monster-hit musical at the Pantages Theatre. Only a few years out of high school (she’s a 2004 Fullerton Union High grad), Mackey owned the fluid acting chops and sterling soprano voice that guaranteed her a fabulous career.
And that’s exactly what happened. With half a dozen major Broadway credits, many touring productions and a bunch of quality regional-theater work under her belt, Mackey is now a mid-career star often found on big stages.
Which is why it’s such a thrill to see Mackey, along with some other top-drawer talent, in “She Loves Me,” a musical that deserves to be experienced in an intimate venue where you can appreciate its modest charms. South Coast Repertory’s 507-seat Segerstrom Stage is the perfect fit. It opened there last weekend and plays through Feb. 22.
“She Loves Me,” which found only moderate success when it debuted on Broadway in 1963, is just one of several versions of the 1937 Hungarian play “Parfumerie” by Miklós László. It tells a topsy-turvy love story of two office mates who don’t realize they’re secret romantic pen pals. (The play has also been the source for “The Shop Around the Corner,” a 1940 movie starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, and Nora Ephron’s 1998 rom-com, “You’ve Got Mail.”)
David Ivers chose this show as his directorial debut since becoming South Coast Repertory’s artistic director, and it’s easy to understand why. For one thing, it’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser — uncontroversial, shamelessly romantic, and anchored firmly in the familiar confines of the retail workplace, where many of us have toiled at some point in our lives.
“She Loves Me” also showcases Ivers’ talents. His affection for musicals shows in the care he takes to give even minor characters their moment of comedy or pathos. So does his considerable experience with the workaday logistics of quick scene changes, complex blocking and brisk pacing that musical comedy requires. This show moves well and changes scenes fairly seamlessly — no mean feat on a stage that doesn’t have the fly space or size to fling giant chunks of set around in a hurry. (A few annoying amplification problems were the only bugs at Sunday’s matinee.)
And it gives Ivers a chance to introduce some of his colleagues. Brian Vaughn co-stars. Currently he’s the artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where he and Ivers worked together for many years. Let’s hope Vaughn’s SCR debut is the first of many roles there.
Many of us know the plot to this story from seeing one of its many incarnations. Amalia and Georg (Mackey and Vaughn) are the Beatrice and Benedick of this pre-World War II love story set in Budapest — two clerks in a perfume and cosmetics shop who develop an instant hatred for each other.
The spoiler (for those who’ve managed never to see any version of this tale) is that they’re blind pen pals who are conducting a steadily warming romance-by-mail. The intrigue (and many of the laughs) emanate from the characters’ ongoing obliviousness to each other’s identities, and their steadily rising and mutual enmity.
There are numerous plot complications involving a loathsome Lothario named Steven (Sam Ludwig), Ilona, the hopelessly romantic sap who falls for him (Marlene Martinez), Maraczek, the suspicious store owner (Gregory North), and Arpad, an ambitious delivery boy (Ricky Abilez), all of them artfully weaved into Joe Masteroff’s adaptation. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s songs contain no memorable hits, but the score is remarkably clever, carefully crafted, and well integrated into the plot. And, for Barbara Cook fans, it has one genuine classic: “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which Amalia sings when she first gets an inkling that Georg isn’t such a bad guy after all.
Vaughn delivers smooth comic timing and just the right touch of suavity as Georg, and the supporting performers are uniformly excellent. Danny Scheie steals the restaurant scene as a supercilious and exasperated headwaiter whose head is about to explode. Martinez milks all the comic possibilities as Ilona. Matthew Henerson is nicely cast as Ladislov, a clerk who always seems to do the right things for the wrong reasons.
But it’s Mackey who soars, especially when she sings. She’s so good she makes you wonder why more of these songs didn’t become standalone hits.
Kudos to Ivers for bringing a Golden Age musical to SCR and producing it faithfully, without any dark postmodern twists or tortured “reimagining” of time and place. “She Loves Me” is a masterwork in its own way, and it succeeds just fine without being remolded into something that it was never meant to be.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].