This beloved classic rom-com musical is being revived at the Hayes Theatre
Ever since Joe Masteroff, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s sweet confection of a musical premiered on Broadway in 1963, critics have compared the show to vanilla ice cream. That’s because the most famous song to come out of the show is called ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’, performed by our unlikely heroine Amalia Balash (Caitlin Berry) as she comes to realise the truth about Georg Nowack (Rowan Witt), a colleague she despises. But it’s a metaphor that fits; the show is sweet, refreshing, comforting and lovingly crafted – if not the most adventurous of flavours. There’s not a great deal of nutritional value, but it’ll leave you feeling nourished.
This new production for the Hayes Theatre, by industry stalwart but first-time director Erin James, finds the heart of the show and has just about every element in perfect balance. It’s genuinely funny, although James never overplays the comedy, focusing instead on telling a great story.
The musical is based on a 1937 Hungarian play called Parfumerie by Miklós László. It’s set inside a parfumerie (surprise) where sales clerk Georg is coming under the pump by the owner, Mr Maraczek (Tony Llewellyn-Jones). When Amalia starts as the store’s new sales clerk, she immediately clashes with Georg and the pair become rivals. But outside of work hours, both are spending their evenings writing letters to a mysterious pen pal who they’ve both fallen deeply in love with. It turns out they’re actually writing to each other (big surprise) and are due to meet for a romantic first date.
It’s just about the perfect romantic comedy plot and has been turned into several films, including the 1998 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks early online dating flick, You’ve Got Mail. But there are no emails in this version, which is set firmly in a romanticised Hungary, between world wars. Most of the musical centres around work – although there’s a touch of glamour, being a sales clerk isn’t always the most thrilling of professions – revealing the joy and personal connections that can be found within our everyday slogs.
There’s a host of wonderful characters – the aspiring teenage delivery boy Arpad (Joel Granger), the glamorous Ilona Ritter (Zoe Gertz), the sleazy clerk Steven Kodaly (Kurt Phelan), and the hapless middle-aged clerk struggling to hold onto his job, Ladislav Siplos (Jay James-Moody). The dialogue is all charming and beautifully constructed, but it’s music – classic Broadway fare with some thrilling Eastern European touches – that drives the characters; it’s how they express their desires and farewell customers (the clerks sing a repeated musical refrain in tight harmony: “Thank you, Madam, please call again”). Steven Kreamer’s musical direction keeps the show buzzing along with plenty of verve and integrity.
James has assembled a multitalented cast who work within Isabel Hudson’s charming parfumerie set to create a world full of romantic possibilities. Rowan Witt and Caitlin Berry both sing gorgeously and find the chemistry in their feud. They’ve created characters that you immediately take to heart and can invest in. Zoe Gertz belts her way through her role with plenty of power and nuance – you get a strong sense that Ilona is a woman who’s lived a life and now knows exactly what she wants. Jay James-Moody is an absolute scene-stealer, particularly as the fidgety head waiter at the “romantic” café where Georg and Amalia are to have their first date.
As with many romantic comedies, She Loves Me ends at Christmas, with both gifts and plot points being wrapped up with a bow. But before we can get to that point there’s a big montage of seasonal shoppers growing increasingly desperate to find the perfect gift at the parfumerie in the 12 days leading up to Christmas. It’s a brilliant few minutes of musical theatre, with the stage buzzing (James working in perfect step with choreographer Leslie Bell) with action and storytelling. It also really captures the feeling of working retail in that crazy festive period.
That’s what makes this musical so irresistible. It’s both an escape and a way of looking at the world – the struggles of work and dating – through rose-coloured lenses. It does exactly what you want a musical comedy to do.