By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
For its second full production of their season, Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane (SLT) chose “She Loves Me,” a show that could arguably be considered among the most stealthily Jewish shows in the modern Broadway lexicon. Based on “Parfumerie,” a 1937 play by Hungarian Jewish playwright Miklos Laszlo, which was adapted into the 1940 movie, “The Shop Around the Corner,” the characters themselves are not particularly Jewish, just as when Nora Ephron rewrote them into the more recent romcom “You’ve Got Mail.”
But “She Loves Me” is written from a very Jewish perspective. Consider that it opened in 1963, just a year before Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Jerry Bock’s (music) greatest triumph – “Fiddler on the Roof .” The two joined with book writer Joe Masteroff to form a Jewish musical triumvirate of sorts with the work produced and directed on Broadway by yet another Jew, Harold Prince.
Following the success of his early season “lagniappe” concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” SLT artistic director Michael McKelvey was queried: With what could he possibly follow the glowing production of “42nd Street” directed and choreographed by Diane Lala in June? McKelvey needed to have an ace up his sleeve for his first full production as a director. The name of that ace is Dody Piper.
Piper’s performance is not only up to the challenge, but is worthy of consideration as one for the ages. Her singing, countenance and both tender and, at times, comical performance throughout this beloved work is nothing short of astounding. Piper, a Loyola University graduate, has a pure voice from the classical or operetta style with the clarity of a bell.
As Amalia Balash, the role created by the legendary Barbara Cook and recently revived on Broadway by Laura Benanti, Piper had a gold standard that had been set before her and, thus, a daunting task for her to follow. Each year there are many opportunities for producers around the country to present “She Loves Me,” one of the most charming of Harnick and Bock’s outstanding repertoire. However, most of them realize they are unable to do so because only a very few, truly impressive singers are blessed with the gifts that make them capable of tackling this delightful, difficult and critical role.
In addition to executing a perfect rendition of “Ice Cream,” the virtuoso piece in Act II, Piper’s exquisite rendition of “Will He Like Me?” in Act I is utterly charming. To hear such mellifluous and powerful singing and to experience her cute-as-a-button performance is consummate bliss and will fill any theatre lover’s heart with joy.
While McKelvey knew he had a surefire winner with Piper, he stacked the deck with the remainder of the cast too. In the male lead he chose the charismatic and more than capable Rich Arnold, a veteran of leading roles in JPAS’s two productions of The Light in the Piazza and earlier SLT productions of Into the Woods and The Drowsy Chaperone. With his dashing good looks and captivating stage presence, Arnold sings with great command in the frantic favorite “Tonight at Eight” in Act I, where he anxiously awaits meeting his unknown lonely hearts correspondent, and the title song in Act II, where he gloats over his realization that he has found his beloved in the most unexpected of places.
In “Three Letters,” an unusual duet in which the exposition of Masteroff’s book is carried forward by Harnick and Bock’s lyrics and music, both Piper and Arnold portray Amalia and Georg, but as too disconnected letter writers in the scene. The difficult “Where’s My Shoe?” in Act II allows the two to connect in a physical sense for the first time before the finale.
As a leading man, Arnold may be among the best SLT has to offer this season and his portrayal of Georg Nowack, the maltreated, but loyal parfumerie clerk who is a hopeless romantic is among his best performances.
Also, of note is Meredith Owens, who portrays Ilona Ritter, an oversexed fellow clerk, who has luck with men – all bad. Owens’ comic role is lovely counterpart to both Piper and Bryce Slocumb, who portrays the rake, Steven Kodaly. Owens shines in one of Harnick and Bock’s best pieces “A Trip to the Library,” in which Ilona recounts how she found love through literacy. But while that is her best solo outing, her voice beautifully matches that of Piper’s in “I Don’t Know His Name,” in which she first learns of her co-worker’s obsession with her “Dear Friend.” This could very well be Owens’ best performance to date, too.
Playing Kodaly, the deceitful ladies man and rapscallion, Slocumb oils and oozes his way around the stage, while obsessively preening himself. Slocumb’s one moment in the spotlight (“Grand Knowing You”) is a wonderful sendoff and he proves once again that he is a wonderful second banana or featured performer. Slocumb already established himself in previous roles in Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas‘ at JPAS, Le Petit’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Rivertown’s Me and My Girl.
It is Hart atop a bicycle who ushers in the beginning of the musical following a short prelude with “Good Morning, Good Day” in which the work force at Maraczek’s parfumerie imagine taking off the day to frolic and picnic instead of staying indoors and taking care of customers. Hart, who also serves as dance captain for the work plays well with his fellow clerks, but his most endearing connection is to Bob Edes, Jr., who plays Mr. Maraczek, the shop proprietor.
Sean Patterson, as senior clerk Ladislov Sipos, adds his usual comic talent to the cast, but it shines in “Perspective” in which the Hungarian philosophy of self-survival mingles with the Hungarian melodies Jerry Bock uses throughout the work. He also shares the stage with Daniel Hart as delivery boy and would-be clerk Arpad Laszlo, who has a penchant for being in the right place at the right time.
As to be expected, Edes brings his breadth and experience to the role with his usual, understated acting flair. The book allows him to move from a stern shop owner to a sympathetic and supportive figure, who ultimately shows remorse for his wrongful past, especially where it concerns Georg.
The remaining ensemble cast is filled with players, most of whom have already enjoyed leading or featured roles in other productions. These include Peter Elliot, Eli Timm, Chrissy Bowen, Anthony Harvey, Elyse McDaniel and Amelia Jacquet. They all sparkle in this charming vehicle.
The choreography by Jauné Buisson is as ebullient as the songs and as well executed as any prior production she has shepherded. While this musical gem, first produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince, lacks the large-scale dance numbers which Harnick and Bock showcased in their next outing, Fiddler on the Roof, it does have plenty of movement both inside and out of Maraczek’s. Buisson’s work with this more intimate work shines as she obviously considered the development of the characters and the advancement of Masteroff’s plot.
As musical director, C. Leonard Raybon is at his absolute best moving the baton to elicit some of Jerry Bock’s most endearing melodies with the assistance of some of the most talented and seasoned of musical players, many of whom are also veterans of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Indeed, the score requires a delicate hand and precision playing and Raybon’s conducting is perfectly matched with the virtuosity of his musicians.
Daniel Zimmer executed wonderful and brilliant lighting designs, while Rick Paul created fairly respectable set designs. The one fly which served as the storefront for Maraczek’s did seem to deserve some extra shoring at its front door, but with that one exception, everything else was both functional and well-crafted.
Costume designs by Glenn Avery Breed were wonderfully rendered and coordinated by Kaci Thomassie along with excellent wig and makeup designs by Erin Routh.
In short, “She Loves Me” is a work not to be missed. Had the intersession of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Barry not affected its production schedule, it would have had but one day left for a final performance. As it turns out, McKelvey was able to reschedule around the storm and will reopen doors for audiences today, Sunday, July 14, for a matinee at 2:00 p.m. and an evening performance at 7:30 p.m. The final show will be seen tomorrow, Monday, July 15, at 7:30 p.m. Season subscribers may exchange their earlier tickets for any of those shows.
“She Loves Me” with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joe Masteroff is directed by Michael McKelvey and plays Sunday, July 14 at both 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Monday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m. Based on a play by Miklos Laszlo, the musical runs three hours including a 15 minute intermission and is presented by Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane at Dixon Hall, 30 Newcomb Circle. For ticket information click here or call 504–865-5269.