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Michele Ragusa and George Dvorsky
in She Loves Me
(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
For lush musical-comedy romanticism, it's hard to beat She Loves Me. There is a timeless magic about this 1963 show, which has a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joe Masteroff. Factoring in lonely hearts ads, adultery, a fair amount of nasty sparring, and even a suicide attempt, here is a thoroughly adult musical that also happens to be family-friendly -- an unusual combination, especially today.

The show is so expertly crafted that, even when certain aspects of a particular production aren't perfect, it works. That's the case with the Paper Mill Playhouse's She Loves Me, directed by James Brennan, who superbly staged The Sound of Music for the theater last season. Brennan has some difficulty in reconciling the musical's comic and serious elements while telling the interlocking stories of the seven employees at Maraczek's Parfumerie. Some of the comedy does come through for both the central couple, Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash (George Dvorsky and Michele Ragusa), and the secondary couple, Ilona Ritter and Steven Kodaly (Nancy Anderson and David Hess), but in a rather uneasy fashion. The way Brennan focuses on these pairings in the first act, humor often seems an intrusion.

So when the scene shifts from the parfumerie to a romantic restaurant (courtesy of the excellent, fluid set design of Michael Anania), the shift in tone is almost enough to knock you out of your seat. Amalia and Georg meet at the restaurant; they hate each other at work but have fallen in love through the letters they have written to each other, though neither knows that the other is his/her secret correspondent. Sparks fly -- violent for them, rapturous for us. The first act ends beautifully, carrying us through the intermission and the entire second act on a wave of good feeling. By the time Act II over, don't be surprised if you can't get the smile off your face or the tears out of your eyes.

She Loves Me, based on a play by Miklos Laszlo and the subsequent film The Shop Around the Corner, boasts a book that deftly explores many different facets of all kinds of relationships. This is echoed and amplified by the great score, which contains a few musical nods to the show's Hungarian setting (particularly the violin solo that kicks off the overture) but is otherwise straight from the Broadway musical playbook. While the show's most famous numbers are performed back-to-back in the second act -- Amalia's "Vanilla Ice Cream," about the Georg she's slowly learning to love, and the title song, sung by Georg when Amalia obliquely makes known her true feelings for him -- even the less familiar songs are winners. Amalia and Georg have a large percentage of the best material, including her aching "Will He Like Me?" and his "Tonight at Eight," one of the most perceptive songs about nervous anticipation in the Broadway canon. But Ilona scores the funny "A Trip to the Library," Steven gets the acidic parting shot "Grand Knowing You," and a montage number late in the second act ("Twelve Days to Christmas") is a caffeinated, clever delight. The Paper Mill orchestra, conducted by musical director Tom Helm and playing Don Walker's orchestrations as adapted by Frank Matosich, Jr., sounds wonderful throughout the show.

Nancy Anderson, Bill Bateman, Michele Ragusa,
Bradford William Anderson, George Dvorsky, and
George S. Irving in She Loves Me
(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
All of the cast members are of consummate talent, even if their chemistry with each other is less than bubbling: the aforementioned Hess, Paper Mill stalwart George S. Irving as Maraczek, Bill Bateman as the mild-mannered clerk Sipos, Bradford William Anderson as the shop's enterprising delivery boy, and Paul Schoeffler as the smarmy headwaiter in the restaurant scene all come off extremely well in their roles and seem to have found the proper style for the piece. Anderson looks perfect for the period (the costumes are by Gail Baldoni) and sings and dances expertly but lacks just a bit of the "oomph" that might take her Ilona to the next level. Ragusa reads as a bit too mature and knowing for Amalia, though she sings extremely well; if her voice never recalls the unique instrument of the role's peerless creator, Barbara Cook, those who know Ragusa only for her terrific belt will be very pleasantly surprised. Dvorsky also sings well but doesn't seem to warm up to his character until the restaurant scene, at which point he, Ragusa, and the show really take off.
After that happens, nothing can pull this production down from the theatrical stratosphere. She Loves Me becomes transporting and thoroughly heartwarming, the kind of musical that even those with the hardest of hearts would find it impossible not to love.

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