Hungarian playwright Miklós László’s 1937 Parfumerie is probably best known as the inspiration for the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but it has also spawned several musical theatre adaptations, including the 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me which opened at the Hayes Theatre last night.
With music by Jerry Bock (who scored Fiddler on the Roof), lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joe Masteroff, the show’s premise is simple: two employees at a Budapest Parfumerie in the 1930s fall in love anonymously, writing letters to each other through a lonely-hearts column, despite driving each other crazy in person. Making her Hayes directorial debut, Erin James finds in this rather old-fashioned musical plenty of humour and heart, supported by excellent singing and some wonderful comic turns.
The cast of Hayes Theatre Co’s She Loves Me. Photo © Noni Carroll
Against a gorgeous, period set by Isabel Hudson, lit warmly by Matt Cox, we meet the Maraczek’s Parfumerie family: from delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (Joel Granger) to clerks Georg Nowack (Rowan Witt), Ilona Ritter (Zoe Gertz), Stephen Kodaly (Kurt Phelan) and Ladislav Sipos (Jay James-Moody) overseen by aging proprietor Zoltan Maraczek (Tony Llewellyn-Jones). Suzanne Steele and Georgina Walker give the staff a steady stream of high maintenance customers. Into the mix is thrown a new employee, Amalia Balash (Caitlin Berry), who unbeknownst to Nowack – who immediately takes a dislike to her – is the Dear Friend of his secret correspondence.
Caitlin Berry and Rowan Witt in Hayes Theatre Co’s She Loves Me. Photo © Noni Carroll
This is a strong cast and while She Loves Me is no Fiddler on the Roof, Bock’s music has a rich, Hungarian flavour and there are moments for each of the characters to shine. Among the highlights are Gertz’s firecracker I Resolve, Grangers’ optimistic Try Me and Phelan’s sarcastic showpiece Grand Knowing You. James-Moody steals the show as both down-trodden clerk Sipos and a fastidious waiter, his comic timing absolutely impeccable – his Romantic Atmosphere was the hit of the night. Berry brings humour vocal sweetness to Amalia Balash in numbers like Will He Like Me? and Vanilla Ice Cream while her opposite number Witt – who has come off a fabulous run as Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon – brings plenty of comedy, energy and a voice to back it up to Georg Nowack. His Tonight at Eight has a delightfully nervous, snappy energy and his performance of the show’s title song, She Loves Me, is brilliantly realised.
Zoe Gertz and Jay James-Moody in Hayes Theatre Co’s She Loves Me. Photo © Noni Carroll
While the foibles of finding love and working in retail remain timeless, and gentle subversion softens some of the antiquated notions in this musical, there are still moments where the show feels quite dated. Book and lyrics aren’t fantastic – the jokes are of the aged American sit-com variety and the arc of Nowack and Balash’s relationship feels superficially drawn (there’s a tension built that never really pays off) – but James finds plenty of life in the details in between, nuance and humour coming across in the physical comedy and a carefully detailed visual experience.
Ensemble numbers such as Sounds Like Selling and the escalating mayhem of Twelve Days to Christmas are particularly fun, as is Leslie Bell’s choreography. While it might be a musical past its prime, sharp, energetic performances and strong direction make She Loves Me a fun night at the theatre.
She Loves Me is at the Hayes Theatre until September 22