As it was at the overture and shall be at the exit music, bliss without end. Amen.

Theatre Aficionado at Large

She Loves Me – Menier Chocolate Factory

“My kingdom for a revival of She Loves Me!” is a thing I once tweeted. I fell in love with the original Broadway cast recording in high school, but it would be years before I would get to see it onstage. That chance arrived in 2013, when Ted Sterling presented a 50th anniversary concert at Caramoor. Cut to 2016. Exactly four years to the day after sending out this desperate missive, I was at the fourth preview of an enchanting revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory (and the second major production I’d seen this year).

She Loves Me is the ultimate charm show: a perfect confection of musical comedy writing that is romantic without being sentimental, witty without being self-aware, and heartwarming without being cloying. Based on the Miklós László play Parfumerie (source material for the films The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail), it’s about two coworkers are carrying on a profound correspondence by letter, not knowing that they work together — and loathe each other. Bock and Harnick’s score is one of the greatest in musical theatre. The songs are so character specific and integral to the plot that they don’t work as well without the context of Joe Masteroff’s expert libretto. The show is also blessed with one of the strongest second acts of a musical ever, with what I call The 11:00 Stretch from “Vanilla Ice Cream” to “Twelve Days to Christmas.”

She Loves Me has never become a household title, though it remains a cult favorite. Its original production was eclipsed by flashy blockbusters like Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl, running only nine months in spite of good notices and direction by Harold Prince. Every subsequent high-profile production has either been a financial failure or a limited engagement at a non-profit theatre.

My hat is off to director Matthew White, who pitches his production at a perfect pace. First and foremost, he trusts the material (even if saddled with the mostly-inferior 1993 revisions). He emphasizes the humanity of these characters, with profoundly funny and moving results. Secondly, his focus never strays far from the economic and political uncertainty of 1930s Europe. Finally, he uses the space with such economy and invention that it becomes impossible to resist the show’s intoxicating charms.

Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen play the feuding co-workers and would-be lovers. These two don’t just bicker, they hurl insults at each other like grenades. Their chemistry is sublime; combusting with euphoria in the one-two punch of “Vanilla Ice Cream” and “She Loves Me” in the second act. Umbers is immensely likable as the bookish and shy clerk, bringing out colors in the text that I’d never noticed before. Strallen, blessed with a lovely soprano, gives what feels like a close approximation of what Julie Andrews might have done with the part.

Katherine Kingsley is quite simply the best Ilona I’ve ever seen, combining expert comic timing with pathos. Kingsley’s real-life husband Dominic Tighe plays her Kodaly, the likable cad. They have a playfulness that most paired in the roles don’t have, and Tighe’s “Grand Knowing You” is an absolute riot. Alistair Brookshaw puts a new spin on weary, reliable Sipos, whose neuroses over job security wreak havoc on Georg’s life. Cory English plays the haughty head waiter with a mix of droll comedy and surprising warmth. Callum Howells is an endearing Arpad (and has the most charming Welsh accent) and Les Dennis (Mr. Maraczek) is particularly moving in his “Days Gone By” reprise. A favorite among the game ensemble: Aimee Hodnett. Ms. Hodnett’s nosy shop customer lived for the workplace drama at Maraczek’s, and I lived for the grace notes she was adding on the periphery.

Jason Carr’s new orchestrations sound better than the synth-heavy charts used in 1993. MTI should consider licensing his treatment for school, amateur and chamber productions. Catherine Jayes leads the band and conducts the show with sensitivity and depth. Paul Farnsworth’s jewel box of a set effectively uses four small turntables for transitions in and out of the shop. Farnsworth’s costumes are even better: his attention to period and character is beyond reproach.

She Loves Me runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory through March 4. No word yet on whether or not there will be a West End transfer. To the powers that be, I can only say: Don’t let it end, dear friends.

1 Comment

  1. sofia wrote:

    My kingdom for the Broadway production, or at least a DVD/CD, of this show. I’ve been following Mark Umbers for a lifetime, well anyway, since I first saw him in Foyle’s War, which indeed was a lifetime away. Alas, we are oceans apart, well anyway, across the pond apart. I have been watching PBS and buying DVDs/CDs but they are so scarce. Is there any hope that Merrily…. and/or She Loves Me or he himself in whatever, will ever cross the ocean to come to Broadway? Or at least be on DVD/CD? I’m languishing waiting, well anyway, breathlessly hoping.

    Comment — December 11, 2016 @ 10:18 am
A place where I can rant and rave about theatre,
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Photo by Kari Geltemeyer

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2016

2/11 - The King and I

2/12 - Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

2/14 - Cabin in the Sky (Encores!)

2/16 - Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

2/19 - She Loves Me (first preview)

2/21 - Translations (Oxford Arts Space)

2/22 - The Secret Garden (MCP Concert)

2/28 - Anna Netrebko in Recital (Met Opera)

2/28 - Kate Baldwin & Friends: Welcome to My Party (Sheen Center)

3/9 - She Loves Me

3/11 - Noises Off

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

4/3 - 1776 (Encores!)

4/4 - The Light in the Piazza (10th Anniversary Reunion Concert)

4/25 - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

4/28 - Dido and Aeneas (City Center)

5/15 - Do I Hear a Waltz? (City Center Encores!)

5/25 - The Robber Bridegroom

6/3 - The Color Purple

6/8 - Bright Star

6/13 - Lettice and Lovage (Acting Company Benefit)

6/26 - The King and I

7/23 - Shuffle Along

10/24 - Sunday in the Park with George (City Center Encores! Gala)

10/29 - Kelli O'Hara at Carnegie Hall

11/9 - Guillaume Tell (Met Opera)

11/23 - Half a Sixpence (West End)

11/24 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/25 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

11/28 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/29 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

12/12 - Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Gala)

12/14 - In Transit

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2015

1/1 - Beautiful

1/8 - Honeymoon in Vegas

1/12 - A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration (92nd Street Y)

1/15 - On the Town

1/25 - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Paper Mill Playhouse, opening night)

1/28 - The Merry Widow (Met Opera)

1/30 - The Elephant Man

2/6 - Lady, Be Good! (Encores!)

2/13 - The Screen (Taksu Theatre Company)

2/19 - You Can't Take It With You

2/27 - The Lion

3/1 - John and Jen

3/3 - Craig Ferguson: Hot & Grumpy Tour

3/8 - The Audience (opening night)

3/12 - The King and I (first preview)

3/17 - Hand to God

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

3/22 - Paint Your Wagon (Encores!)

3/25 - Cabaret

3/26 - The Visit (first preview)

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 1

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 2

4/8 - Gigi (opening night)

4/9 - Rhiannon Giddens at Town Hall

4/21 - Gypsy (West End)

4/22 - Wicked (West End)

4/22 - The Audience (West End)

4/23 - The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

4/24 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (West End)

4/25 - Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)

4/25 - Matilda (West End)

4/27 - Sweeney Todd (Tooting Arts Club)

4/28 - Follies (Royal Albert Hall)

4/28 - Gypsy (West End)

5/10 - Zorba (Encores!)

5/26 - The Visit

6/2 - On the Twentieth Century

6/9 - The King and I

6/14 - The Visit

7/2 - Little Shop of Horrors (Encores!)

9/21 - Hollywood Arms (Merkin Hall Reading)

10/4 - Dames at Sea

10/14 - King Charles III

10/16 - The Pirates of Penzance (Collegiate Chorale)

10/27 - Spring Awakening

11/2 - Kate Baldwin: Sing Pretty and Don't Fall Down (Keen Company Benefit)

11/17 - Songbird

11/25 - Gypsy (West End)

11/28 - Gypsy (West End, closing)

11/30 - The Winter's Tale (West End)

12/1 - Kinky Boots (West End)

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