by Michael Meigs
The Wimberley Players' production of She Loves Me directed by Dawn Youngs delivers a serene and intricately musical vision of a 1930s fairy tale. Preserved as if in one of those snow globes awaiting a gentle shake to send the flakes whirling, a perfume shop in Budapest is a holiday setting where affairs of the heart predominate. The elegant ladies of the city come seeking their creams, perfumes and philtres; the clerks of the shop, good earnest working folk, do their best to please.
Love will not be lured by artifice, of course, but it does thrive on mystery. This gentle musical comedy uses one of the oldest comic plot devices in the book: the anonymous love letter. The audience's fun is doubled as it watches while both participants in this courtship by mail just happen to become employees of the shop and quickly become annoyed rivals.
Ann Pittman is new arrival Amalia Balash who won't take 'no' for an answer, brashly outdoing shop manager Georg Nowack (Jim Lindsay), gaining a job and causing Nowack to lose a wager with the boss. Pittman and Lindsay have paired before, as Juan and Evita Perón in the Georgetown Palace's Evita last February, where each demonstrated stature and dignity along with fine singing voices.
In She Loves Me you can enjoy a different take: they're lively, self-assured and assertive in their in-store rivalry but vulnerable and sentimental in the imaginings of their correspondence, each writing letters to the anonymous 'Dear Friend.'
I didn't leave humming the music, as suggested by the theatre's publicity, but that's simply because I had never heard it before. Sheldon Harnick's lyrics are clever and Jerry Bock's music is tuneful and complex. This production gives me the impulse to go haunting the CD bins in some of Austin's shops to renew my acquaintance with them, especially Amalia's Will He Like Me?, Try Me! by delivery boy/aspiring sales clerk Arpad (the exuberant young James Springer), Vanilla Ice Cream by Amalia -- and, especially, the title song She Loves Me, Jim Lindsay's ecstatic solo celebration song and dance when he realizes the identity of his correspondent. There is no list of musical numbers in the program, by the way, so I may be missing some splendid ones.
Just as in the classic screwball comedies of the 1930's and 1940's, the background to the comic courtship is decorated with stock characters. Guy Ben-Moshe as the distracted shop owner Mr. Maraczek is the worried adult presence hovering over all these hormones -- especially since he has employed a private detective to confirm that his wife is having an affair. You've got the good buddy in the shop, Ladislav Sipos, a family man who just wants to keep his job (Bill Claussen, again highly effective for the Players); Steven Kodaly, the smug Lothario played by Derek Smootz with smirk and musicality; Celeste Coburn as best girl friend Ilona, attracted to Kodaly but later ready to set her sights on a bookish man from the library; and Springer as springing delivery boy Arpad.
Set designer Christy Colebank and the eight-man construction team put together an elegant art-deco shop with clever transformations to reveal an employees' workroom and to convert the setting late in the first act to the alarmingly louche Cafe Imperiale, wrapped in red velvet and peopled with a menacingly faceless clientele. Maître d'hôtel Ryley Wilson seeks to convince us in song that the place has A Romantic Atmosphere, but the Tango Tragique danced there is one of emotionless, sweaty lust rather than of romance.
This 1963 musical was built upon The Perfume Shop, a 1937 play in Hungarian by Miklos Lazslo. Lazslo's sweet, closed world remains appealing even today, especially to those of us with a fondness for romance and happy endings. Adapted for the cinema, it became Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 The Little Shop Around the Corner, the 1949 Judy Garland vehicle In the Good Old Summertime, and in 1998 You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It's telling that She Loves Me has not a hint of the heavy threat of European politics of the time. One assumes that shop owner Mr. Marasczek was Jewish, just as was playwright Lazslo. Lazslo emigrated to New York in 1938, where he became something of a celebrity in the expatriate Hungarian community. He married an aspiring actress of good family, became an American citizen in 1944 and worked on and off for MGM for years.
The chemistry between leads Ann Pittman and Jim Lindsay is sparkling, whether they're vying with one another or yearning for their unknown correspondents. They're like magnets with opposed poles, bristling and pushing apart and then, abruptly, in the last thirty seconds of the two-hour performance, swinging about and connecting abruptly with long awaited recognition, kiss and embrace. We'd have liked to have had another song, one of celebration to savor that triumph; it's too bad that the writers didn't make room for one by pulling one of the earlier numbers in this relatively lengthy story of nine scenes. But then, against a backdrop of infidelity and uncertainty, perhaps that electric moment of the first kiss was exactly the right place to stop.
Click to view feature in the Wimberley Players' newsletter: 'Leading Players Join Players,' November, 2011
Click to view extracts from the Wimberley Players' program for She Loves Me