Friday, January 6, 2017

"She Loves Me"

She Loves Me
Jerry Bock (Music); Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics); Joe Masteroff (Book)

The Cast of "She Loves Me"
All it takes is a simple storyline about two of the most unlikely people falling hopelessly in love for the tale to endure forever.  Take two store clerks (Amalia and Georg) who outwardly despise each other, quarreling constantly to the dismay of their co-workers in an upscale perfume shop.  Each is quite the romantic with a secret pen pal and already in love with that someone never met.  Both are out for a huge surprise when finally the cat is out of the bag that their biggest irritant in life is also their sought-after mate for life. 

Starting as Parfumerie, a 1937 play by Hungarian Miklos Lazlo, this quaint story has endured decades and endeared global audiences on stage and screen including the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner (starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan), the 1949 film musical The Good Old Summertime (Judy Garland and Van Johnson), and the 1998 hit film You’ve Got Mail (Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks).  The multi-Tony-nominated She Loves Me by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) (sandwiched between their famed Fiorella! and Fiddler on the Roof) and with book by Joe Masteroff starred Barbara Cook and Jim Massey in its 1963 premiere.  More recently, “Best Revival of a Musical” awards poured in from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk for New York’s Roundabout Theatre 2016 hit that featured another big twosome: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi.  And while the musical is currently drawing big crowds in London’s West End, San Francisco Playhouse joins the long parade of revived productions with its own She Loves Me, directed with full tongue-in-cheek by Susi Damilano as every opportunity for an audience chuckle, laugh, or downright guffaw is dutifully manifested.

Katrina Lauren McGraw & Monique Hafen
As the summer season passes in 1934 Budapest, all is going well for the Maracek Parfumerie star clerk, Georg Nowack (clearly the favorite of the congenial owner, Mr. Maracek) until she arrives -- the rapidly talking, pleasant-looking, but oh-so pushy Amalia Balash.  She spontaneously steps in (still un-hired) to sell to a rather portly lady a leather cigarette box that also plays music, convincing her that the box is actually for candy and spritely singing that its enclosed tune is “like the voice of God” ... (warning) “No More Candy.”  Given that Georg has just bet Mr. Maracek that no one would buy the stupid boxes, Amalia becomes the new shop’s star and Georg’s instant rival.  Jason Rehklau (a last-minute stand-in for regular Jeffrey Brain Adams) and Monique Hafen send zingers aplenty each other’s way as Georg and Amalia.  His Georg increasingly scowls and pouts as her Amalia flutters about as if now owning the place. 

The rivalry intensifies as Christmas comes and peaks to a hilarious and frenzied height when at one point, he arrives at her apartment actually to be nice while she is in bed feeling sickly.  She misinterprets his being there to spy on her and to get her fired for playing hooky.  As she tries to dress and he tries to get her back into her sick bed, the two duel in a high-fun, expertly directed duet in “Where’s My Shoe” while clothes, scarves, shoes, and bodies fly about the room, over the bed, and on the floor with split-second accuracy.  Ms. Hafen’s incredible comedic talents particularly shine in her ever-changing facial expressions, her limber body, and her tearful blubbering while trying to eat ice cream.

Surrounding the two unlikely, yet would-be lovers is a whole cast of wonderful stock characters, each a treasure to get to know.  Joe Estlack is the cautious clerk Ladislav Sipos, whose defining guidelines for life of always being unseen, unnoticed unfold in a well-delivered, good-voiced “Perspective.”  “Always humble, not an ounce of self respect ... ‘Scuse me while I genuflect,” he opines.

Nicholas J. Garland & Joe Estlack
In knickers and on his bike, Arpad Laszlo is a teenage delivery boy bucking Mr. Maraczek with much natural charm for a promotion (“Try Me”).  Using his debonair air, enthusiastic facial expressions, and a voice that is one of the best in the cast, Nicholas J. Garland as Arpad (now Mr. Laszlo) successfully sells himself both to his boss and to an appreciative audience.

As the sexy clerk Ilona Ritter seeking someone for love and for lust, Nanci Zoppi is determined to find her own Mr. Right (“I Resolve”), even though in the past, “I must be cousin to a cat, I always end up with a rat.”  Ms. Zoppi time and again soars in her performance appearances, using a singing voice that rings with clarity; shows immense variety in tone, volume, mood, and pace; and knows when and how to belt without blasting.  She is particularly hilarious as she recounts in rapid-fire lyrics and with contagious energy about “A Trip to the Library,” where she has found her sought-after lover, “(who) I know he’ll only have eyes for me, my Optometrist, Paul.”

Nanci Zoppi & Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.
But Ilona first has to ward off the advances and endure the nightly date no-shows of fellow clerk, Mr. Kodaly.  Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. is the lanky (i.e., all legs and arms), suave, ever-smooth playboy store clerk who is always on the make and with an ego and narcissism fully to match his good looks.  Mr. Jackson particularly scores in his “Grand Knowing You,” as he sweetly sings melodious tones that belie his snotty messages to each and all as he leaves, ignominiously fired from their midst.  Heading up this quirky family is Michael Gene Sullivan as parfumerie owner and boss Mr. Maracek, who while dancing about on light feet, reminisces to Georg in a voice rich and reflective of “Days Gone By” when he was single – a condition the philandering Mr. Kadaly will ensure he relives.

Shoppers Go Wild
Director Susi Damilano guarantees every member of the cast of fourteen gets one-to-several moments to be a star.  Ayelet Firstenberg, Katrina Lauren McGraw, and Leah Shesky join the store’s male clerks in “Sounds While Selling,” where exquisitely timed, over-heard words and phases from clerk-customer pairings lead to side-tickling phrases like “I would like ... an eyebrow ... under ... my chin.”  Shoppers Zachariah Mohammed, Brian Herndon, and Amie Shapiro join these three and all clerks for a increasingly rousing, frenetic, and stage-filling “Twelve Days of Christmas” as carolers count down the shopping days left and customers first politely and later with fists and fury snap up those last-minute purchases.

The evening’s fun is fully supported by the rotating, colorful set of Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott with set changes occurring magically and quickly.  Especially wonderful is the way the 1930s Budapest street of shops rotates to show an impressive interior of the parfumerie, with the opposite side of the street now showing up in beautiful projection -- ever-changing-in-light according to the time of day (thanks to projections design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker and lighting design by Thomas J. Munn).  The number of lush and detailed period costumes that change to match the rapidly changing seasons and settings are a triumph for Abra Berman -- with shoppers showing up in period-perfect furs, hats, shoes, and dresses that are nothing short of eye-popping in both their splendor and in how fast they are changed. 

Choreography plays a big part in the fun and energy of this production, and Kimberly Richards has created coordinated steps and rhythms that work for individuals, twosomes, and a stage full of moving people in all directions.  Jerry Bock’s score is overall beautifully delivered by the four musicians under David Aaron Brown’s direction, but their placement in a small balcony above front of stage does mean at times the sound is out of balance at times, especially when the trumpet is called upon.

While her acting abilities are spot-on perfect for the role of Amalia, the demanding songs of Jerry Bock with notes that often float into high range unfortunately too often prove challenging for Ms. Hafen.  As long as she sings in soft, contemplative tones, her voice works ever so well.  However, as soon as she raises her volume and increases her intensity (which happens in the many songs she is called upon to sing), her voice too often goes from a pleasing soprano with nice lift and flow to a piercing voice with much too much edge that can actually make it difficult to concentrate and understand some of her lyrics as well as to blend in with others during her various duets.  Musical Director David Aaron Brown seems to have missed the chance to coach her to back off just enough to smooth out those rough edges back to her more beautiful sounds.

Finally, a special round of applause must go to Jason Rehklau as the under-study-called-into duty for the role of Georg Nowack.  He evidently only had a very short notice that he would step into that lead role for the evening I attended.  With script in hand that mostly appeared as an added prop instead of a necessary instrument, Mr. Rehklau nobly and convincingly carried forth.  His fine tenor voice flowed nicely, clearly in “Dear Friend”; rapidly and accurately shot out staccato lyrics in “Tonight at Eight,” and sold with pizzazz and delight “She Loves Me.”  While his quick insertion into the night’s cast did at times seem to disrupt some of the flow and pace (making a long play seem a bit too long at times), the effect of his presence as Georg was overall positive and fun to watch.  Bravo, Jason!

San Francisco Playhouse has once again delivered a holiday gift that the packed audiences are clearly enjoying.  There is no way that anyone will leave a visit to Maracek’s Parfumerie without a huge departing smile.

Rating: 3 E

She Loves Me continues in extension through January 14, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

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