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.

Practically Perfect in Every Way

It was a long time coming, but I finally took in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins currently ensconced in the beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theatre. I was a huge fan of the 1964 Oscar-winning film, which is the first film I can remember watching. For years, I anticipated a stage adaptation and it came to fruition in 2004 when the show opened in London starring Laura Michelle Kelly as the titular nanny and Gavin Lee as Bert, the jack-of-all-trades busker.

The show opened in the fall of 2006 at the New Amsterdam Theatre (home to The Lion King for nine years) and is the current cashcow at Disney Theatrical’s flagship theatre. The show opened with Gavin Lee crossing the pond to make an auspicious Broadway debut and American Ashley Brown as Mary. Daniel Jenkins and Rebecca Luker were cast as Mr. and Mrs. Banks. Cass Morgan was the Bird Woman and Ruth Gottschall was Miss Andrew.

I don’t know how I let the show escape my grasp, especially given my incredible excitement over its gestation, and excitement at the new material (after some initial reticence) by the British composing team of Stiles and Drewe. It’s been widely publicized, but bears repeating, that author P.L. Travers was less than thrilled with the blockbuster film adaptation. She approved of the casting of Julie Andrews, but little else. It took Cameron Mackintosh to convince her just before her death to give him the stage rights, one of the stipulations was that all Brits had to work on the stage piece, which meant that the Sherman brothers, who won two Oscars for their work on the film, wouldn’t be involved. (Even though they had worked on the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that premiered only a couple years prior). Disney and Mackintosh came together to collaborate, bringing the best of both worlds together. My first exposure to the show and Laura Michelle Kelly’s spectacular performance was through a live television performance from the British “Children in Need” telethon, very similar to what Jerry Lewis accomplishes on this side of the pond, but bringing in big West End musicals to perform. They presented the brand new “Practically Perfect” and segued into the reconceived “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and I was completely won over. Upon hearing the original London cast album, of which I literally burned several copies and just passed them out to everyone I encountered in my theatre department, I was hooked. In an ideal world, I would be in England seeing this production.

After almost two years with the show, Brown and Lee departed the NY company, taking a rest before they take up the first national tour this winter. Kelly’s London replacement Scarlett Strallen and Australian performer Adam Fiorentino stepped into the leads. By the time I got there, the show had been closed in London after three years and the Broadway production had just passed 900 performances. But, better late than never. Strallen possesses a lovely lyric soprano and bears an uncanny resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhaal. She doesn’t quite capture the steely yet affectionate quality of the role’s originator, but she finds humor and in her poised china doll smile, reveling in every moment she’s onstage. Fiorentino is nothing short of charming and matches Strallen note for note.

Much to my delight, Tony-nominees Jenkins and Luker are still with the show, as well as Gottschall. The last time I saw both Luker and Gottschall was in the recent revival of The Music Man, and had enjoyed both immensely. As for the show itself, I loved it. While not the perfect stage adaptation of the story and score that I would like, there is ample wit and heart in the book to keep the adults entertained. I have long considered myself a fan of British children’s literature, where authors revel in dark humor with the children ultimately learning something valuable by its end. Mary Poppins is no exception. In the original books, which take place in 30s London, Mary is a rather unattractive, stern vain creature who, over the course of several volumes, comes and goes from Cherry Tree Lane as she is needed. Mary is a catalyst who helps to make and sustain the Banks family as a functioning family, while looking after Jane and Michael, as well as the younger twins John and Barbara (yep, there are four Banks children in the original story). There was also a lot of commentary about class and status, which is prevalent in many Anglo-centric enterprises (from Howards End to Atonement to Keeping Up Appearances to Upstairs, Downstairs, etc).

Out of the Disney shows presented on Broadway, The Lion King generally remains the number one (with its Best Musical Tony and decade plus run). However, in spite of its great spectacle and stunning scenography it’s ultimately an emotionally vapid spectacle with very little pay-off in its script and score but compensates in its staging. For me, this show possesses great heart, especially in what is ultimately the most fascinating and complicated relationship in the play: that between Mr and Mrs. Banks. Rebecca Luker has grown immeasurably as an actress becoming the emotional anchor for the piece, creating a warm, multi-dimensional woman out of what is an underwritten but mostly fascinating role. She is lucky enough to be matched by Jenkins’ superb work as the emotionally repressed, work and class obsessed patriarch who has the greatest character arc. These two give the adults something to appreciate in what is generally considered kids’ fare. Jane Carr and Mark Price score big laughs as the put upon wait staff. The kids are cute without being cloying and Gottschall scores huge laughs as the nanny from hell, Miss Andrew.

Richard Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne provide the lucid and witty staging. Bourne and his co-choreographer Stephen Mear bring a great deal of ballet to the choreography (particularly Nelius and the “Jolly Holliday” sequence), however the high point is the tap/stomp reconception of “Step in Time” complete with Bert tap dancing upside down from the proscenium. The eye-popping elevator set by Bob Crowley complemented the action without overwhelming it. Crowley’s costumes recall the indelible images of the film, mostly for Mary and has provided colorful new looks for practically everyone else.

In my years of theatregoing I guess I’m supposed to have developed a hard cynical edge especially when it comes to theatre aimed more towards children. But rarely does a screen to stage show express such originality while paying considerable homage to its source than this one. The creative team wonderfully melds the original and new material interpolating certain numbers into scenes where they make more sense (ie “Practically Perfect” as an am/want song for Mary, pushing “Spoonful of Sugar” later on). By the curtain call, the audience was entranced. I was sitting among many adults who were also as swept up in the play, moreso than the kids I thought. There is one change to the piece that is a vast improvement on the film. Onscreen, Mary and Mrs. Banks never speak a single word to each other. Onstage, they have fleshed out a more accurate portrayal of how a nanny and matriarch would interact in a household of such stature during the Edwardian period. Also, in lieu of being busy with suffrage work, Mrs. Banks is a stay at home mother who has given up an acting career for family.

In spite of a few imperfections here and there (certain scenes could have used a bit more tightening, and the first scene could use a little work), it’s a fantastic show in fantastic shape. As Mary flew directly over me at the curtain of the show, I couldn’t but smile broadly. Was I waxing nostalgic for me not so recent yet not so distant youth? Or was I swept up in a moment of pure theatre…? Well, can’t it both?

On a side note, this marked my first time ever in the New Amsterdam Theatre, which was paintstakingly restored in the mid-90s by Disney (who holds a 99 year lease on the building). They’ve done a beautiful job of restoring the intricate design of the interior, but in particular is the lower level lounge, which when they first started renovations was completely submerged. There is a great deal of history in and around the New Amsterdam that having a look around is completely obligatory for anyone who goes to that theatre. However, it must be said that the Mark Hellinger Theatre is still the most impressive theatre interior I’ve ever seen.