Thursday, 22 December 2016

Review She Loves Me

She Loves Me
Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock

Retail Concern

A love letter to the love letter, musical She Loves Me harks back to pre-Second World War Budapest, one of the former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Based on a 1937 play Illatszertár, also known as Parfumerie, by playwright, and later impoverished refugee who sold away the screen rights, Miklós László

The charming story of She Loves Me focusses on an old-fashioned perfumery store in Budapest. Two of its staff, supervisor Georg (Mark Umbers) and saleswoman Amalia (Scarlett Strallen), unwittingly become lonely hearts' club pen pals. 

They exchange anonymous letters in their search for the perfect mate, fuelled by a love of romantic literature. The rub is that, outside their epistolary affair with "Dear Friend", the two have an antagonistic, fractious working relationship until ... Well, you'll have to go and see the show to find out! 

The original 1930s' play went on to be adapted into two movies, The Shop Around The Corner in 1940, with a screenplay by Samuel Raphaelson directed by Berlin-born Ernst Lubitsch, and In The Good Old Summertime, a 1949 Judy Garland vehicle produced by Hungarian Joe Pasternak transfering the action to Chicago.  

Fourteen years later, it was transformed into the musical with book by Joe (later "Cabaret") Masteroff, lyrics and music by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock respectively who, shortly after, would see their best-known work "Fiddler On The Roof" open to worldwide acclaim. 

It seems 1963 was a good year for retail in musicals with She Loves Me hot on the heels of  Half A Sixpence - a drapery store - and Hello Dolly - a hat shop.  In this case, it is an emporium of cosmetic cold cream and scent, proprietor Mr Maraczek (actor and comedian Les Dennis) with a wayward, unseen wife. 

Each morning begins with an assortment of staff assembling before the shop door. Georg, the bold and brassy blonde man magnet, Ilona (Katherine Kingsley), the suave and smarmy Steven (Dominic Tighe),  the timid Ladislav (Alastair Brookshaw) and the brimming-with-the-confidence-of-youth Arpad (Callum Howells), the delivery boy.

Giving more than a nod to Austro-Hungarian light operetta, on one level this is a archetypal love/hate romance embodied in the title song lyrics sung with gusto by Mark Umbers in this production: "She loves me,/True, she doesn't show it/How could she,/When she doesn't know it./Yesterday she loathed me, bah!/Now today she likes me, ah!/And tomorrow, tomorrow.../AAAAAAAAAAAh!"

The eternally-at-loggerheads shop clerks turn out, of course, to be the perfect match and Scarlett Strallen is terrific as kooky Amalia whose saleswoman patter reinvents commercially the whole reason for musical boxes.  While Katherine Kingsley takes the honours as the hour-glass blonde who eventually finds her own equivalent of Arthur Miller in the library, Dominic Tighe turns in a fine performance as all-round-cad and commercial predator, Steven Kodaly.       

The design by Paul Farnsworth is a delight with smooth waltzing revolves taking us from sparkling crystal shop exterior to gilded rococco Louis XIV (or is it Austrian Marie Antoinette?) kitsch interior, with forays into a delicious dark cherry velvet and wood mitteleuropean cafe and a Magic Mountain convalescent home.

Yet the clever staging and choreography of director Matthew White and choreographer Rebecca Howell manages to thread together 1930s' movie Budapest with a 1960s' vibe reflecting the musical's complex subtle subtexts of war and peace behind glossy shopfronts and commerce in art.

There's something made too of the stepping stones to the writers' and composer's later more famous works, Fiddler On The Roof and Cabaret, along with the changes in retail with a sly acknowledgement of Avon Lady direct selling.

This is an adorable musical - one has to say for those who like this kind of style - given a polished, energetic performance at the Menier with the orchestra, including Romano Mazzani's accordion,  in its own glass casket led by Catherine Jayes.

That is, notwithstanding tiny more sombre echos - it's 1934 after all. There are glimpses of the influence of the stage version of the earlier (and somewhat darker than the film)  The Sound of Music in shop clerk Sipos's song Perspective.

Beneath a head waiter's (Cory English) comic commercial diplomacy, the showstopper A Romantic Atmosphere catches the spirit of and is a spyhole into the international spider's web of political chaos behind 1930s' - and 1960s' - mitteleuropean gemütlichkeit.  So there's a more bitter drug lacing this seemingly sentimental dragée. It's a delicious production which, in our opinion, deserves a TLT green light.

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