She Loves Me

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi star in Broadway’s ”Shop Around the Corner”.

Laura Benanti (Amalia) and Zachary Levi (Georg) in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of She Loves Me, directed by Scott Ellis, at Studio 54.
Laura Benanti (Amalia) and Zachary Levi (Georg) in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of She Loves Me, directed by Scott Ellis, at Studio 54.
(© Joan Marcus)

Pushing theatrical boundaries is all well and good, but there's no shame in coloring inside the lines when the finished product is as vibrant as Roundabout Theatre Companys' latest revival of She Loves Me, which opened this evening at Studio 54.

The creative team for She Loves Me boasts a book by Joe Masteroff — the librettist of game-changer Cabaret — and a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — the songwriting team behind Fiddler on the Roof, a masterpiece that is proving its staying power once again in a revival at the Broadway Theatre. Among this trio of musicals, all of which made their Broadway debuts between 1963 and 1966, She Loves Me was the first to arrive and the first to be forgotten — and understandably so, considering the heft of its politically charged contemporaries.

Based on Miklós László's play Parfumerie, the story is an airy romantic comedy about a pair of pen pals who love each other on paper and hate each other in person…until they realize they love each other in person as well. Parfumerie may not ring any bells, but its film iterations The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, and You've Got Mail have made the slight plot a romantic-comedy favorite. It's a tale of boy meets girl that indulges our cravings for a neat happy ending, but it's also one that lives and dies with the "boy" and "girl" tasked with giving life to this tried-and-true formula. Luckily for Roundabout, anyone with a pulse will enjoy watching Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi fall in love.

They star as Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack, a pair of attractive young singles living in Budapest in 1934 who strike up a passionate correspondence via a lonely-hearts newspaper ad. Little does Georg know that the insufferable woman who has weaseled her way into a job at Maraczek's Parfumerie, where he reigns as assistant manager, is the same woman who has won his heart in prose (David Rockwell has designed Maraczek's like a two-story fairy-tale jewel box). After discovering the truth, Georg softens to Amalia's spunky charms and tries to win her heart as himself before revealing his identity to Amalia as her beloved "Dear Friend."

Since Barbara Cook put her stamp on She Loves Me in 1963, Amalia Balash has become a coveted role for Broadway's soprano elite (Judy Kuhn played the part in the 1993 revival, followed by Kelli O'Hara who performed in a one-night Roundabout concert in 2011). If there was ever any question, Benanti proves herself as the next rightful successor, tossing off window-shattering notes like a classic ingenue with the comedic timing of a grade-A character actress (Bock and Harnick's eleven-o'clock number "Vanilla Ice Cream" seems tailor-made for Benanti's vocal range and sense of humor).

While Levi doesn't match Benanti vocally (few could), he's an ideal foil for her both comically and romantically. He meets her understated disgust for his character with a broad egotism, yet somehow remains infinitely likable. And even without a trained voice, he lets loose on the show's title number with an old-fashioned "I-got-the-girl" victory lap, softening his tall frame with a boyish giddiness like a modern-day Jimmy Stewart.

Scott Ellis directs the revival in this winsome spirit of Broadway's Golden Age (though the musical was actually ahead of its time in 1963, throwing away the standard of flashy chorus kicklines). Jeff Mahshie's period costumes are flawless, down to Amalia's perfectly tailored pink pajamas. Peter Bartlett makes a cameo as a cartoonishly nitpicky waiter to lead the show's biggest production number, "A Romantic Atmosphere" (a dramaturgically unnecessary vignette of dancing waiters but one that shows off Warren Carlyle's impressive choreography).

Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel lend the show its slender B-plot as the lovelorn Ilona Ritter and her smooth-talking colleague Steven Kodaly who's been leading her on. They're a mismatched pair (Creel seems too sweet to be villainous) but one that works for comic effect, particularly during their featured duet "Ilona," in which Krakowski gets to chew the scenery like she does best.

The accomplished supporting cast also includes a commanding Byron Jennings as Georg's boss, Mr. Maraczek, and Tony winner Michael McGrath as Georg's downtrodden confidante Ladislav Sipos (who begs Georg not to quit his job with the clever though forgettable song "Perspective"). Nicholas Barasch also offers a standout performance as the eager messenger boy Arpad Laszlo (he channels the frenetic energy of a young Mickey Rooney to beg Mr. Maraczek for a job with the song "Try Me").

With this second revival production, Roundabout Theatre Company has become the official champion of She Loves Me — a musical that has earned the company's devotion solely on the basis of being delightful. There's no deeper philosophical explanation, but fortunately, the show doesn't need one. It just needs a couple of top-notch salesmen — and whatever Benanti and Levi are selling, Broadway is buying.

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