She Loves Me
Ned Hopkins | 08 Dec 2016 09:34am
What a darling show this is! The perfect bijou musical. If you could hug it, you would. Each number in Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s delicious score, with its clever lyrics and subtle references to Hungarian folk rhythms, moves the plot further on until eventually, with snow falling and Christmas lights twinkling, the two lovers finally fall into each other’s arms.
Miklos Laszlo’s 1936 play Parfumerie, spawned, along with the Broadway show She Loves Me, no less than three charming films, The Shop Around The Corner, In The Good Old Summertime and, most recently, I Got Mail. It’s the plot about the work colleagues who hate one another’s guts, not realising that in their private lives, they are pen-pals. As the show opens, their fantasies are getting more out of hand with each exchange of correspondence.
Like most of us, Amalia, Georg, Ilona and their co-workers are ordinary people, each struggling to earn a livelihood, maintain standards and offset the harsher realities of life with self-deceiving romantic dreams. And, this being theatre, there is one charming cad, the lothario Steven Kodaly (Dominic Tighe oozing self-love from every well-conditioned pore) to create a load of trouble for them.
On the surface a feel-good, sentimental musical comedy, the unstated sub-text of She Loves Me is provided by its setting: pre-war Budapest. It was a time of political and economic upheaval with fascists knocking at the door and few jobs to go round. So, no change there! To emphasise the show’s universality, Michael White has encouraged his cast to use their own accents rather than overlaying them with American ones – often the fate of British actors in shows created for New York. Thus, we have a cheery Welsh delivery boy, Arpad – the talented seventeen year-old Callum Howells – a sexy TOWIE soubrette (Katherine Kingsley hilariously breathing fresh life into the supporting female role of the man-crazy but easily exploitable Ilona) and Les Dennis morphing his ex-Corrie persona into the more imposing, if sadly cuckolded, Mr Maraczek.
As the not-so young, self-star-crossed lovers Amalia and Georg, Scarlett Strallen and Mark Umbers have apparently received elocution lessons – as many working people did in years gone by. It certainly allows us to hear every line and lyric clearly. Well-matched, they deliver performances of great charm, extracting all the nuance and melody from their numbers. Any sentiment and winsomeness inherent in the roles of such romantic leads is offset by just the right amount of feisty shrewishness (her) and perplexed ungraciousness (him). Mark Umbers’ Georg starts of practically as an anti-hero, until we discover how badly he is being treated. The man next to me had tears running down his cheeks when, obliged to sack himself, the cast – in one of several beautifully handled choral sequences – sang Goodbye Georg as our leading man left the shop. Better luck in Act Two allows him Georg to warm up, before finally breaking into the exquisite title song as he realises ‘my teeth ache from the urge to touch her.’
Good support is provided by Alastair Brookshaw as the cynical but sane Sipos, the observer amongst the staff of Maraczeks, whose number Perspective encapsulates up the philosophy of many conscientious people in difficult times: never put your job at risk by criticising the regime. He tries, in vain, to discourage Georg from losing his temper even when it is being severly tested, yet accidentally sets in motion a crucial plotline.
Generally well-designed by Paul Farnsworth, with attractive period costumes, there were moments, however, when I felt that the interior scenes were a little over-crowded with props and furniture, especially in Act Two. The theatre’s wide but none-too-deep proscenium configurement, must be a great challenge to designers. And, it was distracting when Georg was obliged to deliver his big number in front of running tabs, to enable a complicated set change to take place behind – of which we were aware. But I attended an early preview performance, and some of these issues may well have been adjusted by now.
White and his choreographer Rebecca Howell make imaginative use of the ensemble of seven, with much delightfully witty movement that keeps the show on its toes. The only opportunity for formal choreography is the – strictly unnecessary yet entertaining – A Romantic Atmosphere sequence set in the bohemian Café Imperiale. Involving a comic Head Waiter (Cory English getting every laugh he possibly can) and several pairs of diners running wild, this number always seems slightly out-of-tone with the rest of the show; but, hey, it is over fifty years old and, on this occasion, is cleverly executed. The pair also exploits every opportunity for alternating pathos with near-farce in their treatment of other songs, especially those involving Katherine Kingsley. She Loves Me is a show I’ve seen on many occasions since it was first produced in the West End in 1964, and never seen Ilona played so hysterically, or knew there were quite so many laughs in A Trip To The Library – one of the best numbers.
Barbara Cook, the original Amalia, went on to make the songs Dear Friend, Will He Like Me? and, especially Ice Cream, well known – certainly amongst amongst aficionados – in her cabaret act. Any actor has a job to shake off the memory of her interpretation. Scarlett Strallen, however, makes the numbers totally her own. As always, her soaring soprano is a seemingly effortless joy. I defy anyone not to be moved when she finds herself alone in an empty restaurant at closing time, the waiters dismantling the tables, clutching her copy of Anna Karenina with a red rose for a bookmark, and singing:
I make believe nothing is wrong
How long can I pretend?
Please make it right, don’t break my heart
Don’t let it end, dear friend
Once again, I left the Menier, tingling such delicious tingles! Four and a half stars!