By Bill Beard
Most of you are probably not old enough to remember the 1940 romantic comedy film, The Shop Around the Corner, starring Margaret Sullavan and a very young Jimmy Stewart. Well, I am…almost. It was the first movie based on the 1937 play Parfumerie, by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo. Then came In the Good Old Summertime, a 1949 musical film starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson. That one I do remember; as well as the more recent You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
They each use different “locales”; e.g., a perfume shop, a gift shop, a music store and a book store. But the plot still revolves around a pen pal romance between lonely romantics, who by chance end up working as retail colleagues, who find one another quite annoying but, of course, end up in the big “revelation” scene, realizing they’re perfect for one another.
She Loves Me, a musical version, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joe Masteroff, opened on Broadway in April 1963, and played for 302 performances, and a year later, in April 1964, the London production opened and played for a year. Revivals on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1990s were award-winning successes.
Currently, right now, until Nov. 21, you can see an absolutely gorgeous production of this charming show by the skillfully accomplished Writers’ Theatre group in north suburban Glencoe, Ill. I had never seen this group’s work before, and I came away extremely impressed. Celebrated for their work with serious and classic drama, Writers’ Theatre, according to Artistic Director Michael Halberstam, explains that this is their “…first foray into the landscape of the great American musical.
“We are blessed with an exceptional gathering of artists, a wonderful book, score and lyrics, and delectable storytelling. Furthermore, I cannot think of a musical more suited to the Writers’ Theatre scale and aesthetic. … I cannot imagine a more exciting opportunity.”
His production exceeds all expectations.
The cast includes several of Chicago’s acting elite, some of them making their Writers’ Theatre debut. Rod Thomas in the lead as Georg Nowack is still as handsome as he was in Sugar at Drury Lane Oak Brook, and though not quite as “natural” as James Stewart in the old movie, he handles both line and lyric with a nice ease. The well-known Ross Lehman as shop owner, Mr. Maraczek, Kevin Gudahl as
Sipos and the always-talented James Rank as Steven Kodaly, are perfectly cast. Jeremy Rill has an uproariously funny take on a frustrated waiter, stealing the scene with every entrance, but completely appropriately.
Special kudos to Bernard Balbot for making the role of delivery boy, Arpad Laszlo, into one of the most irresistible characters ever enjoyed. I sat front row, and Arpad’s big scene and song, “Try Me,” took place literally within 4 feet of my seat. Mr. Balbot was so honest and sincere, so absolutely believable, and so darned charming, that I was completely mesmerized. I have no idea how old this actor is, but he presented the audience with the most endearing 17-year-old I’ve ever seen.
The distaff side of the cast featured two marvelous singers, both making their Writers’ Theatre debuts in this gem of a musical, but both well-known and eminently experienced in the Chicago theater: Jessie Mueller as Amalia Balash and Heidi Kettenring as Ilona Ritter. They are supported by three recurring “customers,” played by Kelli Clevenger, Stephanie Herman and Bethany Thomas, who add greatly to the harmonies, especially in clever “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Visually, the production is flawless, with set by Jack Magaw, costumes by Nan Zabriskie and props by Nick Heggestad, designed to present us with a posh perfume store in 1930s Budapest. Cleverly hidden behind a scrim, the orchestra, under the direction of Ben Johnson, was perfectly balanced and supportive.
Moving a sizable cast of actor-singers around a smallish stage, with audience on three sides, can be problematic. But the choreography by Jessica Reddish, artistic director of The Music Theatre Company in Highland Park, was ingeniously creative, especially with the use of cleverly-designed, rolling sales-station carts. Bravo.
She Loves Me is certainly a must-see show; and it only plays through Nov. 21. So, call now for information at 847-242-600, or go online to writerstheatre.org.
From the Nov. 3-9, 2010 issue