Saturday, December 31, 2016

SHE LOVES ME at the Menier Chocolate Factory - Love at Christmas...

My last two theatre visits of 2016 are coincidentally two shows that I have never seen onstage before but know very well through the original cast recordings - finally I know the bits that go between the songs!

SHE LOVES ME premiered in 1963 with a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and written by Joe Masteroff; it was an odd case of them all just being one-show-away from their career-defining highs - 1964 saw the premiere of Bock and Harnick's FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and in 1966 Masteroff wrote the book for a little-known musical called CABARET.

SHE LOVES ME is based on the Hungarian playwright Miklós László's 1937 play "Parfumerie" and has become a bit of a well-ridden pony: James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan starred in Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 film version "The Shop Around The Corner", in 1949 it inspired a first musicalization as "In The Good Old Summertime" starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and nearly 40 years later the plot served as the basis for the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film "You've Got Mail".

The original production was produced and directed by Hal Prince and was choreographed by Carol Haney (who tragically died the following year from pneumonia) and, in retrospect, provided Barbara Cook with her last great Broadway starring role playing Amalia opposite Daniel Massey's Georg.  The show was a modest hit and received a scant five Tony Nominations - none for the score - it's only win being for Jack Cassidy's duplicitous Kodaly.

A London production followed in 1964 (with the dynamic casting of Rita Moreno as the lovelorn Ilona) and in 1978 Gemma Craven and Diane Langton co-starred in a BBC tv version. SHE LOVES ME had to wait 30 years for a Broadway revival however but proved popular enough to transfer to London with Ruthie Henshall and John Gordon Sinclair as the leads where it ran for a year - and history repeated itself this year with a new revival at Studio 54 which has resulted in the Menier staging it as their Christmas show.

It's odd that there is an idea that the show is a difficult proposition to revive - all it needs is the right size theatre and a well-judged cast; the show could be accused of being old-fashioned and slight - but what it affords is a show of real charm and warmth, with characters that you quietly root for and leaves you feeling entertained and smiling.  A rare commodity these days when the one thing most musicals lack these days is a genuine heart.

Bock and Harnick's score keeps the songs coming - there are 16 in the first act - but they all are tuneful and move the story along.  The score is what has kept the show revivable, mainly in part to the sparkling original cast recording and Barbara Cook's subsequent solo career in cabaret and concerts where she regularly featured Amalia's great songs ICE CREAM, WILL HE LIKE ME, DEAR FRIEND and even Ilona's solo A TRIP TO THE LIBRARY.  Hearing them within the context of the show is like hearing from an old friend.

1930s Budapest: a small perfumerie and chemist shop is owned by Mr Maraczek, his staff include the assistant manager Georg, suave womanizer Mr Kodaly who is not-so-secretly sleeping with co-worker Ilona, the quiet Mr Sipos and the energetic delivery boy Arpad.  Into their world comes the eager-to-please Amalia who has heard of a job vacancy but Maraczek isn't hiring as the shop is just ticking by, the resourceful Amalia notices however the staff have difficulty selling a new range of music boxes so proves her worth by selling one as a musical candy-box which gets her the job.

Georg and Amalia take an instant dislike to each other but their antipathy chimes with Ilona's anger at being dumped by Kodaly and Mr Maraczek's sudden unhappiness with Georg.  What Amalia confides to Ilona and Georj to Sipos is that they are both in love with anonymous pen-pals who fill them with the chance of happiness in their lonely lives.  Yes you guessed... they are unknowingly writing to each other. 

With only a few weeks to Christmas and on the night they are due to meet for the first time, Georj, fed up by the increasingly nit-picking Maraczek, resigns and later on, after seeing to his horror that it's Amalia waiting for him in the designated meeting place with the book and rose to identify her as "Dear Friend", goes in and makes fun of her.  The next day the staff hear that Mr Maraczek has tried to kill himself, his increasing bad temper had been caused by his suspicions that his wife was having an affair with Georg only for it to be revealed that her lover was Kodaly.

Georg agrees to return as manager, Arpad is promoted to salesman, Kodaly skulks off to join a rival establishment and Ilona decides she will give up on men and start reading books instead.  But what of Georg and Amalia?  Will love find a way?  C'mon... this is 1963 Broadway!

Matthew White's heartwarming production fills the small Menier stage with bustling activity - more than one prop went flying due to the onstage business but it all added to the charm.  Paul Farnsworth's lovely set and costumes add the right period flavour and Paul Pyant's lighting is an added delight.  Rebecca Howell gives the show vibrant choreography that utilizes all the stage particularly in the busy romantic Café where waiters and customers dance and leap.

The cast all rise to the occasion and shine in their roles: Scarlett Strallen bursts off the stage with her lovely soprano and bubbly personality as Amalia, Mark Umbers is a slow-burn as Georg but finally flowers into a likeable hero, Les Dennis is surprisingly effective as the love-lorn Maraczek while Dominic Tighe makes a deliciously smooth Kodaly.

Katherine Kingsley is a larger-than-life Ilona who finds and delivers laughs with her cockney Ilona and rises to the challenge of her solo A TRIP TO THE LIBRARY wonderfully.  Callum Howells is a firecracker as the ambitious delivery boy Arpad - although the Norman Wisdom posture could be dialed down a bit - Alastair Brookshaw is a delight as the quiet Mr Sipos while Cory English really stands out as the Head Waiter of the romantic Café, trying to convince us that he provides a suitably subdued atmosphere - as the waiters crash metal trays all around him.

I had been a bit worried that the production might not give me the show that I had waited so long to see but SHE LOVES ME is one of the best musicals they have staged and if you want to see an example of classic Broadway musical comedy then run to see it before March 4th.

A remarkable postscript: MGM bought the film rights for the show and mooted it as a vehicle for Julie Andrews.  Both Harold Prince then Blake Edwards were named as directors with possible casting of Dick Van Dyke and Maurice Chevalier.  The studio was bought out however and in the changing mood of the times the project was dropped.

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