Ukraine. COVID. Climate change. A world of refugees. Authoritarians abroad and at home. Tragedies today and tomorrow. But, at Signature Theater, comedy tonight, in the form of She Loves Me, a musical sweeter even than vanilla ice cream.
Its creators, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, were among the most successful songwriting duos of the Broadway musical’s “golden age,” who followed She Loves Me with the greatest musical ever set in Ukraine, Fiddler on the Roof.
Taking place in the late 1930s in a seemingly peaceful and prosperous Budapest (Depression-era Hungary was in fact a right-wing authoritarian state), She Loves Me has the simplest of setups. Two employees of a cosmetics shop, Georg and Amalia, bicker constantly at work. Simultaneously, they engage in an anonymous romantic correspondence that started with a response to a newspaper “lonely hearts” ad. Complications ensue, focusing on a fraught blind date, in the “will they or won’t they” tradition. The storyline has proven irresistible, as Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Parfumerie gave rise not only to She Loves Me but to three different movie adaptations.
“Irresistible” is just the word for the Bock/Harnick songs, performed to perfection by Signature’s top-flight cast. As romantic lead Amalia Balash, a demanding soprano role originated by the great Barbara Cook, Ali Ewoldt has the versatility to scale the heights of “Vanilla Ice Cream” while conveying tenderly the longing of “Dear Friend.” She begins with a little vocal jewel, “No More Candy,” that, like “My Time of Day” from Guys and Dolls, shows that a brief, quiet song can be a highlight. Her Amalia is a winning mix of smart, feisty, insecure, and passionate.
She Loves Me gives all the principal characters moments to shine. Amalia’s love interest, Georg Nowack (Deven Kolluri), embodies pre-date jitters in “Tonight at Eight” while portraying a marked increase in the physicality of masculine confidence in the second act’s title tune. Shop owner Mr. Maraczek (Lawrence Redmond) fondly recalls his youthful romantic self in “Days Gone By,” and his response to the loss of love is a graceful counterbalance to the exuberance of the younger characters.
As caddish ladies’ man Steven Kodaly, Jake Lowenthal gives the song and dance to Illona Ritter (Maria Rizzo) in the sultry “Illona,” the pair practically drenching the audience in pheromones. Rizzo, a wonderful comic actor with a powerful belt, also gives a very sexy twist to the often more innocent “A Trip to the Library” in the second act. Meanwhile, Lowenthal bids an insouciant farewell to his erstwhile colleagues in “Grand Knowing You.”
Longtime Signature favorite Bobby Smith, as the confessedly cowardly clerk Ladislav Sipros, explains his approach to life in the humorous “Perspective.” A character who can sometimes be overlooked, Sipros is, in Smith’s performance, someone who watches, listens, gently guides, and cares about the others in the small world of the parfumerie. One of the joys of attending live theater, even a show that I have seen numerous times, is that an actor will show me something I hadn’t seen in a character before, and Smith’s Sipros does that here.
Emmanuel Elliot Key, as Laszlo, an eager delivery boy, and David Schlumph, as an overbearing but ultimately kindly headwaiter in a café, have great fun with “Try Me” and “A Romantic Atmosphere,” respectively, the latter requiring significant tenor chops. The work of the ensemble, as customers of the shop, patrons of the café, etc. is impeccable. Kelly Crandall D’Amboise’s choreography in all the scenes — not only bigger numbers like the café sequence — keeps the production moving smartly and precisely.
What impresses me anew seeing this production is the sheer craftsmanship of Bock and Harnick’s work, evident, for example, in the intricacy of the lines traded among members of the ensemble in the opening sequence in the shop. Their craftsmanship is matched by that of director Matthew Gardiner’s attention to detail and nuance and that of the designers who create a lovely world for this tale of love.
Scenic designer Lee Savage’s parfumerie is all pastels, down to the bottles on the shelves, with smaller set pieces that rotate out to create the shop’s back office and the café. Beds slide out smoothly for a hospital room and Amalia’s bedroom.
Adam Honore’s lighting design, besides always keeping the focus of a scene where it belongs, coordinates very nicely with the colors of the dominant costumes in some scenes. For example, there is a lavender hue to the lighting as Illona, in a striking purple dress, performs “A Trip to the Library.” Alejo Vietti’s costumes, initially in a more everyday mode that blends with the pastel hues of the shop, become brighter and bolder as the action proceeds and Christmas gaiety approaches. Amalia’s red, velvety dress for the date with her “dear friend” is particularly stunning.
Jon Kallbfleisch’s 10-piece band accompanies the singers flawlessly, like the rest of the production making the details crystal clear. My only quibble is that, given the power of the voices and the instrumentalists, it seemed unnecessary to amp up the volume of the sound reinforcement quite so high in the MAX theater space.
Like some of the great Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s (e.g., Holiday), She Loves Me is more than simply a “rom-com” providing escapism in a time of trouble. By illuminating real emotions of believable characters, it brings to its audience a sense of what’s most valuable in human lives, doing so in a way that is delightfully entertaining. Signature’s She Loves Me does that as well as any show I’ve seen.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 35 minutes, including one intermission.
She Loves Me plays through April 24, 2022, in the MAX at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40–$108), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.
The She Loves Me program is available online here.
COVID Safety: Signature Theatre requires all audiences to provide proof of vaccination and wear a mask to attend all live public performances and events at indoor venues. Signature’s COVID safety plans can be found here.
Closed captions for She Loves Me will be available for every show via the GalaPro app.