Valentine's Day is long gone, but the utterly charming revival of the 1963 musical She Loves Me at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables proves that romance is lasting. Certainly the story of feuding shop clerks who unwittingly fall for each other as pen pals has endured. First presented in Hungary under the title Parfumerie, Miklos Laszlo's comedy was retold in the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, then nine years later in the movie musical In the Good Old Summertime.
Although composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof) didn't score a hit with She Loves Me when it premiered, the work has attracted a large cult following and spawned a fairly popular original cast recording. More than 30 years ago, the rich score of 23 songs raised eyebrows for discarding the conventions of rousing chorus and dance numbers. By today's standards, however, the solo numbers that help move the story along seem appealingly old-fashioned.
The feeling of bygone days is reinforced by M.P. Amico's fetching pastel set, which looks like something from a Victorian-era children's book. The main street of a European city and the interiors of a shop, restaurant, apartment, and hospital are rendered in a quaint, two-dimensional style with playful flourishes. The sets are also installed on a revolving stage, so there's no delay between scene changes. Even more important, Amico's technical pacing is matched by the perfect timing of a top-notch cast featuring many of the region's best musical-comedy performers.
Although the city in She Loves Me is not specified, the time is the '30s and the shop clerks at Maraczek's Parfumerie are arriving for work. The easy-going and, well, just plain easy Ilona (Margot Moreland) hopes to give up her job at Maraczek's register just as soon as she gets married. Her goal is to snag her philandering coworker Steven (Gary Marachek), but he's more interested in the shop's wealthy female customers. Head clerk Georg (Barry J. Tarallo), who has been with Maraczek's for fifteen years, is too busy for love even though the boss (Peter Haig) keeps urging him to settle down.
Georg confides to the store's married clerk Ladislav (James Puig) that he does have a girl: a pen pal he found through a newspaper's lonely-hearts club whom he addresses as "Dear Friend." But because he's been exaggerating about himself in the letters, Georg is afraid to meet the woman face to face. He's sure if he did, however, that she'd be nothing like the annoying Amalia (Kim Cozort), who barges into the shop and wins a sales position.
The two lock horns again when Amalia and Georg both want the night off for a big date. What they don't realize is that they are set to meet each other. But that's only half the story. During fourteen long scenes (the musical lasts nearly three hours and has one intermission), Joe Masteroff's script follows not only Georg and Amalia, but the other clerks as well. And, with a cast like this, the story's subplots are sublime.
Hideously clothed in loud colors and garish patterns by the otherwise on-target costume designer Mary Lynne Izzo, Moreland overcomes her clownish outfits to make Ilona a winning second banana. While dancing a soft-shoe number with Ladislav, she humorously brings out Harnick's clever lyrics in "A Trip to the Library," in which she describes meeting a new beau among the stacks. "He said that I couldn't go wrong with The Way of All Flesh," she sings. "Of course, it's a novel, but I didn't know, or I certainly wouldn't have smacked him."
Marachek is a deliciously sleazy Steven who, at one point, cons Ilona into dancing a tango with him, then skips out for a date with another woman. Marachek is a gifted comedic actor, but here he delivers his songs with a surprisingly strong matinee-idol voice.
In addition to the soft-shoe and tango nods, choreographer Barbara LeGette adds a playful zest to all of the songs. For example, the delivery boy Arpad (played with appropriate juvenile enthusiasm by William C. Bearder) spins around in a chair while trying to convince a hospitalized Maraczek to promote him to clerk. Likewise, Ladislav tosses wrapped packages to Georg with such delight that we almost forget his song "Perspective" plays up the fact that he's a mere sycophant.
The musical hijinks come to a head at the restaurant where Georg and Amalia have agreed to finally meet their secret sweethearts. As the drunken and disreputable patrons glide under the legs of a dancer held in a mid-air split, the headwaiter (Dan Kelley in a nice comic turn) sings of hopes of preserving a "Romantic Atmosphere."
Of course all a musical needs to create a romantic mood is a good boy-meets-girl story and two talented actors. She Loves Me has both. When Georg spies Amalia in the restaurant, he doesn't confess he's her "Dear Friend," but slowly begins to woo her as himself. Singing the show's title song, Tarallo makes Georg's about-face completely believable. Cozort's Amalia is a caustic yet sensitive romantic foil. When the actress sings, her notes jump as high as her feet, especially when Amalia giddily bounces on her bed, remembering how Georg brought her ice cream when she was home sick.