She Loves Me
The lighter side of 1930s Europe
by Sally Mitani
Europe in the decade before World War II, under the looming specter of fascism, has supplied some of our best plotlines for musicals. In Berlin we have Sally Bowles consorting with Nazis and the demimonde. In Salzburg the von Trapp family tries to stop the Anschluss with a song. Meanwhile, somewhere in Budapest, some face cream squirts out the wrong end of the tube, and boy oh boy, is the boss steamed.
Set in a 1930s Budapest perfume shop, She Loves Me, with songs by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (Fiddler on the Roof), is a musical version of The Shop around the Corner, a 1940 film starring Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart. You might be more familiar with a loose adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan called You've Got Mail. All three of these shows, plus a few others that made less of a splash, originate from a 1930s Hungarian script by Nikolaus Laszlo.
It's the tale of a spunky (aren't they all?) ingenue who meets an eligible bachelor. (True to the formula of the era, he doesn't really need any personality traits of his own his mere availability is considered fascinating.) We know these two lonely hearts are destined for coupledom because of their instant and mutual loathing. The rest of the cast includes a cad, an aging good-time girl who wants to get married, a tyrannical boss, a few others less easily pigeonholed, and a chorus for the big production numbers.
Silly as it is, this production is is I've got to use the C word here it's charming. It's two hours of intensely seductive pleasure that is conjured out of thin air and evaporates with the curtain call, leaving no aftertaste, and certainly leaving you no wiser about anything happening anywhere in the real world. It's a gorgeous swirl of marcelled hair, frothy dresses on hourglass-shaped women, cafe-society sophistication, and, oddly enough, klezmer.
Backing all the songs,
and there are dozens of them, is an exotic klezmer band (composed of accordion, clarinet, violin, and upright bass) whose undulating and at times discordant wail is unexpected and perfect. Between the smallness of the story and the plainness of the Performance Network's black-box theater, I suspect more traditional orchestration would have tipped the balance and made this musical a wheezy mockery of itself.
Klezmer and the two women carry this show. Jennifer Joan Joy, in the Margaret Sullavan / Meg Ryan part, is a newcomer to the Network stage, and she and Naz Edwards (playing the spinster) deliver one showstopper after another. Late in the show, when singing about vanilla ice cream, Joy belts out a high, sustained note opera-style. On the night I was there, it rocked the house and sent the audience leafing through their programs to find her bio.
Though not a big event by Broadway standards, this is a risky, large-scale production for the Performance Network, and it succeeds thoroughly. Its six-week run continues Thursday through Sunday (except Christmas Day) through December 26.
[Originally published in December, 2004.]