Attesting to its timeless appeal, the 1936 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László had been made into two Hollywood films – The Shop Around the Corner and The Good Old Summertime – before this 1963 musical saw the light. Nor did that end reinterpretation, as the next generation grinned through You’ve Got Mail.
The Joe Masterhoff/Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick version is a hand-painted valentine, a shaken snow globe, a waltz. As written, the piece has universal appeal. Its book is sympathetic and unfussy, music and lyrics original and adroit. Once again numbers like “Sounds While Selling” in which we hear pieces of conversation from three customers with three salespeople:
1st WOMAN: I would like to see a…/KODALY:…face like yours…/2nd WOMAN: …cracked…/SIPOS:…but we carry…/1st WOMAN:Do you have a cream for…/2nd WOMAN:…very red…and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which swings back and forth from the heroine’s astonishment at suddenly finding her nemesis captivating and writing to her lonely hearts “pen pal,” make me marvel the authors’ accomplishment. Not to mention resonant ballads and clever comedic numbers.
Zachary Levi and Michael McGrath
The show has warmth, humor, love, distinctive characters, misunderstanding, adultery, Christmas, and a happy ending, several really. What more could one want? It’s sentimental but not saccharine. I’m a longtime fan.
Here, as in the original, our story unfolds at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Budapest, Hungary. Set Designer David Rockwell imagines the establishment as a charming, deftly detailed dolls’ house. The set morphs beautiflly. Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings) runs a cheerfully tight ship. The shop is managed by 30-something everyman Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) and staffed by timid, Ladislav Sipos (Michael McGrath), womanizer Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), single-too-long Ilona Ritter (Jane Krakowski), and delivery boy Arpad Laslo (Nicholas Barasch). Kodaly and Ritter are having a clandestine affair about which everyone is aware.
Into this happy family comes Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) desperate for a job. Though refused a position, the young woman whips off her hat and sells an item about which the proprietor is enthusiastic, but which Nowack considers a mistake. She’s hired. Balash and Nowack are now at loggerheads, a self perpetuating situation.
Having seen at least one of this story’s iterations, you must know that the eventual couple are unknowingly writing one another letters through a lonely hearts club. Both are completely smitten. An eventual attempt to meet evokes an usually touching and comic scenario during which he finds out the identity of his inamorata. Now what? Meanwhile, Kodaly’s latest betrayal of Ilona upsets the apple cart at work in ways no one anticipated.
Gavin Creek and Jane Krakowski
In order for any production to be successful, the show’s protagonists must seem unconscious of what the audience knows. Actors must play “straight,” innocent, or as my companion this evening succinctly suggested, they must “discover” in front of us. This, unfortunately, largely fails to happen.
Scott Ellis’s Direction broadcasts every emotion. Comedy arrives in a succession akin to – I’m about to be funny, look I’m being funny, wait – did you get that? There are broad ba-dump-dump looks and gestures appropriate to vaudeville. Moments of revelation ignore adjustment, confusion, and surprise in favor of being slick. Anger is glossed over. No one thinks or feels, they just move on.
Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Michael McGrath (Sipos) does a nice, subdued, early Nathan Lane-ish job, managing to be gentle and credible. Gavin Creel (Kodaly), the single actor for whom exaggeration is appropriate, is at the same time flamboyant and precise, never going for the yuks.
Jane Krakowski’s Ilona is all sex all the time. A theatrical fanny has not had so much work out since Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. This is supposed to be a girl possessed, neither naively kittenish, nor a vixen. When her turnabout occurs, we don’t buy it. Krakowski is a fine singer and usually a much better comedienne.
Zachary Levi (Nowack) seems to have had a revelation between Acts I and II. In Act I, he’s self-conscious and preening. In Act II, the actor suddenly becomes boyish and believable. “She Loves Me” is infectiously exuberant.
The biggest disappointment is Laura Benanti. At no time is the role of Amalia Balash plumbed for anything but surface expression. Benanti has an extraordinary voice which here, alas, is too often both loudly unfitting to a moment and unbecoming.
Re Warren Carlyle’s Choreography: Though Kodaly’s magnetism is amusingly showcased during a dance duet that features Krakowski’s skillful split (cue applause), that same move has no more business in “I Resolve”- her swearing off that kind of relationship – than do leg extensions through a highly slit skirt she later, aptly rebuttons. The once wry scenario at Cafe Imperiale (bravo Headwaiter Peter Bartlett), is now something out of a Marx Brothers script.
Tonight’s audience admittedly seems unaware of these issues. If you’ve never seen this delicious piece, perhaps you will be as well.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
She Loves Me
Book-Joe Masterhoff; Music-Jerry Bock; Lyrics- Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Scott Ellis
254 West 54th Street
Through June 12, 2016