He Wrote, She Wrote

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.

Director David Arisco melds the multilayered plot and grand score into an evenly paced comic engine that never derails. While he allows each character a moment in the spotlight, Arisco never lets any cast member overshadow the plot or steal the focus away from the primary love story.

Leading a small orchestra and aided by Nate Rausch's sound design, musical director Tom Dillickrath puts Bock and Harnick's score front and center. Although the slight melodies in She Loves Me won't send folks humming up the aisles, the lyrics offer witty views of the characters' thoughts.

The Actors' Playhouse production fits this musical tale of pen pals to the letter.

She Loves Me. Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joe Masteroff. Directed by David Arisco. Choreographed by Barbara LeGette. Starring Barry J. Tarallo, Kim Cozort, Margot Moreland, Gary Marachek, and Peter Haig. Through March 29. Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, 305-444-9293.

Stage Whispers
The cost of an evening of theater has always been a gamble, but the stakes have gotten higher, with prices at the area's largest regional playhouses edging toward $40 a seat. Although discounts vary, bargain hunters can save up to 50 percent on admission price.

Earlier this month the Theatre League of South Florida launched "Ticket Madness" at five Miami-Dade locations. Like ArtServe's TICKETS! program in Fort Lauderdale, Ticket Madness provides discounted tickets for performances taking place the evening they're purchased or the following afternoon. The list of available shows for each ticket program changes daily, and the show you really want to see may not be among the choices. But everyone from small showcase theaters to large venues has signed on, and tickets, in some cases, go for less than ten dollars apiece.

The new Ticket Madness program involves two steps. A patron must first visit one of five outlets in person. The outlets sell vouchers Tuesday through Saturday, from 1 to 6 p.m. After paying a two-dollar service fee per ticket (limit of six tickets), the patron is given a voucher for the discounted tickets. When the patron arrives at the theater to see the show, he or she turns in the voucher at the box office and pays the lower price. For each day's deals, call 305-460-3188.

Ticket Madness locations are: Drama 101 Bookstore, 6789 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami; Books and Books, 296 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables and 933 Lincoln Rd. on South Beach; Murder on Miami Beach Books, 16850 Collins Ave. in Sunny Isles; and Victorian's Cafe, 18840 NE 29th Ave. in Aventura.

Meanwhile, TICKETS! has entered its third year in Fort Lauderdale, where it offers one-stop discount ticket-shopping for theater and other cultural events. Located at a counter in the public library at 1350 East Sunrise Blvd., TICKETS! handles the entire sale. Patrons pay the discounted admission price plus a service charge (from one to three dollars depending on ticket price) and receive a voucher for their seats, which they turn in to the theater's box office prior to the performance.

The booth is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Tickets for Sunday performances are sold on Saturday. Purchases must be made in cash, although there is no restriction on the number of tickets that may be purchased. To find out what is available, call the TICKETS! hotline at 954-462-9191, extension 5.

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