She Loves Me doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
I’ll forgive the 1964 Tony Awards snub for best musical; Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! (the eventual winner) had some form.
But ever since the late great Barbara Cook belted Vanilla Ice Cream in the Broadway original, a patter aria which has become a strange standard for sopranos of the popular stage, She Loves Me never seems to be in the conversation of great musical theatre. And certainly doesn’t get the revival runs of those Rodgers and Hammerstein favourites.
I’m here to tell you that’s not fair. It is jewel box theatre, perfectly carved, a true classic as good as anything from the era. With a smart book by Joe Masteroff (Cabaret), a witty libretto by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) and the wonderful melodies of Jerry Bock (Fiddler, Fiorello!), it’s everything you want from a night of music theatre.
That was my theory going into the Hayes Theatre for the opening of this devoted production. And nothing I saw changed my mind.
Director Erin James has been in plenty of musicals as a performer but she’s never helmed one on her own. It’s a brave and impressive debut, casting well and showing reverence for the material through fresh eyes. There’s unifying vision and care for the small moments, a real test for directors of this material.
Once again, the Hayes has used every inch of its cosy loft space to tell the story, building a gorgeous three-sided perfumery where this romcom of mistaken identity largely takes place. It’s impressive work by production designer Isabel Hudson (following up another Hayes winner in Cry-Baby), creating an immersive world with real attention to detail. It’s well lit by designer Matt Cox.
The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Shop Around The Corner (with American sweetheart Jimmy Stewart), In The Good Old Summertime (American sweetheart Judy Garland) or You’ve Got Mail (American sweetheart Meg Ryan), all remakes of the Hungarian play Parfumerie. She Loves Me hems closest to the original, set in a Budapest boutique, where two colleagues quarrel at work while, unbeknownst to them both, correspond via lonely heart letters.
As the two pen pals, Caitlin Berry as Amalia and Rowan Witt as Georg throw themselves into the screwball scenes and sing with clarity and perfect pitch. Witt is dashing and nails the title number in act two. Berry, a true soprano with a lovely vibrato, was perhaps a little tight on opening night but it’s rare to hear a voice of this quality in such an intimate space. Her torch number, Will He Like Me?, is a winner.
The ensemble delivers in spades. If veteran hoofer Tony Llewellyn-Jones looked a little out of step at times, it only added to the charm of his performance as befuddled store owner Mr Maraczek. Zoe Gertz is an absolute knockout as unlucky-in-love Ilona, delivering a ferocious I Resolve and enchanting A Trip to the Library. As her on-again-off-again mate Stephen, Kurt Phelan is suitably smarmy. Joel Granger (Arpad) plays another wide-eyed innocent and does it with absolute aplomb. And Jay James-Moody is perfect as put-upon Ladislav, and then runs off with the show at the end of the first act as the uppity waiter of the impossibly romantic Cafe Imperiale. Suzanne Steele and Georgina Walker play a variety of Maraczek customers with versatility.
The rich scores loses little in downsizing to a six-piece band, under musical director Steven Kreamer. In fact, even after streaming the recent lavish Broadway revival, there appears little missing from the Hayes’ telling. Even the energetic dance numbers, cleverly choreographed by Leslie Bell, make the space work.
It’s classic music theatre done right. And a chance for Sydney fans of the form to reassess this piece as essential musical cannon.
She Loves Me plays the Hayes Theatre until September 22. (Image by Noni Carroll)
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