From the first bars of the Overture one can sense that “She Loves Me” is different from most American musicals. Phrases seem to endlessly repeat. There’s some dissonance and the tempo is sometimes uneven. While there are strains of tension and moodiness this musical tapestry builds to a final crescendo and resolves itself into beauty and harmony. I begin this review with the music because it’s the small orchestra, under the seasoned baton of Wayne Barker that plays a significant role in this musical comedy – which really should be termed an Operetta, in my opinion. Worthy of special mention is a lovely violin solo by Angela Marroy. Other fine orchestra members are: percussionist (Deane Prouty), cellist (Fred Rose), bass/accordion (Louis Tucci) and harpist (Lynette Wardle).
If you’re familiar with “Three Penny Opera” (“Mack the Knife”) and the ballet in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” you may be able to identify the music with the style of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. With these roots in mind, you would probably also know something about German theatre and its influence on Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Hal Prince, who made his debut as a Broadway director with this show. And, you might also contemplate why, in 1963, “She Loves Me” lasted only 302 performances on Broadway while the same team’s “Fiddler on the Roof” was highly successful.
American audiences want songs with melodies that they can easily sing and sparkling dancing which this musical lacks. Also, the majority of audiences have no identity with the German Zeitgeist or the satire that took place in the theatres during the 1930’s (when many, innovative Jewish artists were force to flee). Miklos Laslo, whose play “Parfumerie,” (upon which “She Loves Me” is based) was among those writers forced to flee Hungary in 1938.
Interestingly, Hal Prince, in a 2007 interview by Jerry Tallmer for “Thrive,” lamented that “…we’ll soon use up the audience … in this case, people in their 50’s, Jewish, Upper West Side; very much the audience that I’d made a career of…there’s an audience that goes regularly to hits and an audience that goes selectively.” Prince (died in 1998) was referring to “Lovemusik” (about Kurt Weil and Lotte Lenya). It was about to close despite full houses.
“She Loves Me” takes place in a Budapest “Parfumerie.” Like the assortment in Forrest Gump’s candy box, each of the characters is different and we are introduced to their ambitions in the splendid opening number “Good Morning, Good Day. The central theme concerns a pair of pen pals who meet unknowingly and antagonize each other at their place of employment -- until they discover their true identities and fall in love. Their colorful colleagues also have problems and their sub-plots tie into the story. A Hungarian Rhapsody with an international flavor, tangos, waltzes and even the distinctive drumbeats of Ravel’s Bolero are artfully blended into scenes.
The comic antics of headwaiter (David Bonnanno) and busboy (Aaron Stierle) take place in a marvelous nightclub scene. Here, “A Romantic Atmosphere” begins like a slow czardas and builds to a frantic pace -- as most Hungarian dances do. “Vanilla Ice Cream,” a duet with Jessica Grove and Jeremy Johnson is an outstanding blend of acting and singing.
Under the superb direction of Mark Lamos the entire cast with its splendid voices, stunning costumes by Candice Donnelly, choreography by Jonathan Butterell and a heavenly fresco of cupids fit for a Habsburg palace, by Riccardo Hernandez, are flawlessly presented.
This 80th season Valentine at Westport Country Playhouse will be extended to May 15. Marlene Gaylinn is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. This review appears in “On CT Theatre.”