She Loves Me
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She Loves Me: Theater review by David Cote
Desire is chemical, or so the scientists say. When that special someone draws near, their scent can cause a fuss in the hypothalamus, prompting a rush of dopamine, adrenaline and oxytocin. Perfume is also a matter of molecules, combining the right proportions of water, alcohol and oil to activate similar neural triggers. And we all know that romantic comedies depend on chemistry—between leads. Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi have that in spades. As quarrelsome clerks in a Budapest perfume store in the heaven-sent She Loves Me, these two cuties irritate each other so much, they’re obviously destined for cuddles and kisses.
How could I be unfamiliar with a show this excellent? By missing, I suppose, the previous Roundabout Theatre Company revival in 1993, also helmed by the stylish Scott Ellis. Grounded by a witty book by Joe Masteroff (Cabaret) and swoonworthy tunes by the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), She Loves Me is a perfectly crafted charmer from 1963. It arrived long after the musical-comedy template had been set but also at a time when songwriters could still unironically evoke the spirit of Franz Lehár or a Strauss waltz. (The source play by Miklós Laszló also furnished plots for The Little Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail.)
Benanti and Levi play Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack, sales staff at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Hungary circa 1930. Both unhappy singletons write anonymous love letters to a lonely-hearts service (the Match.com of their time). It turns out, unbeknownst to them but conforming to the laws of musical comedy, they’ve been sending notes to each other. In a classic “second couple” subplot, the luscious Jane Krakowski plays a shopgirl having an ill-advised workplace affair with Gavin Creel’s dapper cad.
The Roundabout gets so much right in a splendid, joy-stuffed production: casting, design and even the reduced orchestra (guided with tremendous grace by Paul Gemignani). David Rockwell’s sets (Mitteleuropa does Art Deco) glow with his typical urbane suavity; the costumes by Jeff Mahshie are bright and snug on the appealing actors; and Donald Holder’s lights bathe scenes in seductive shadows or a candy-colored glow.
Benanti, besides looking as lovely as ever and earning her laughs, shows off an old-fashioned soprano with affecting vibrato. Levi slips into Georg’s skin with ease, exuding sweet modesty and just a pinch of hauteur. When he cartwheels across the stage during the exultant title song, you’re there with him, getting a contact high from his romantic bliss.—David Cote
Studio 54 (Broadway). Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Scott Ellis. With Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote