I always strive to be original in my theatre reviews — even contrarian when necessary — so I struggled to come up with an assessment of Citadel Theatre’s new production of the classic Broadway musical She Loves Me that didn’t contain the word “charming.”
But I have failed. Because the musical by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, with a book by Joe Masteroff and based on the 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, really is charming. And romantic. And as sweet and light as a whipped cream confection.
The Citadel Theatre production, directed by Matthew Silar, will seem familiar to anyone who has seen the Broadway production — or the several films based on the original play, including The Shop Around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail. Unlike the very dated You’ve Got Mail, with its focus on love letters sent via AOL dial-up email, the Citadel production wisely doesn’t attempt to update or relocate Bock and Harnick’s original Broadway production, instead staying true to its sentimental source.
The story centers on a bickering pair of co-workers at a Budapest perfume shop, Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack, who both belong to a “Lonely Hearts” club, and who both are engaged in flirtatious correspondence with an anonymous and unseen pen pal. As they gradually come to discover, they are actually corresponding with each other, and as the story unspools, much of the comedy and subtle sexiness centers on their struggle to reconcile their in-person dislike of each other with their mutual epistolary romance. This conflict – two people who take an instant dislike to each other but gradually discover their mutual love – has served as the template for countless romantic comedies in the years since Laszlo’s play.
The co-workers are played by Hannah Louise Fernandes, whose powerful, ringing voice is almost too big for Citadel’s theatre, and the Shakespearean actor Travis Ascione. Other stand-out performances are delivered by Geoff Isaac, the cranky and cuckolded owner of the Maraczek Parfumerie where the accidental lovers work, and the sparkling Kaitlin Feely, a pretty young shop clerk whose affair with the dashing playboy Kodaly, played by Jeffrey Charles, provides a rather less wholesome counterpoint to Amalia and Georg’s mutual discovery of love.
Choreographer Amanda Schmidt does a stellar job of bringing the characters to life, particularly in a sizzling pas de deux by Feely and Charles. There also is a funny recurring bit where the clerks simultaneously bend sideways at the waist to symbolize their service to the shop’s customers. The music director is David Zizic, and while the songs aren’t nearly as memorable as Bock and Harnick’s later mega-hit Fiddler on the Roof, the combination of song, the cast’s effective voices and the exceptional choreography create a memorable effect. The clever sherbet-colored set, which is effortlessly flexible as the scenes shift from shop to cafe to Amalia’s apartment, was designed by Jeff Award-winner Eric Luchen.
Some may find this play old-fashioned, and it is, to a degree. And, like Beauty and the Beast, there’s an inherent contradiction in stories about people who fall in love with each other for their inner selves rather than for their outward beauty, but who turn out to be beautiful anyway.
Nonetheless, the story of two young people overcoming their mutual disdain and discovering their love for each other will never go out of style, and the Citadel Theatre production is never less than stylish, fresh and engaging.
Photos by North Shore Camera Club