There's much to admire in Colonial Players' current production of the 1963 musical She Loves Me, based on a timeless love story of two anonymous pen pals who by day are competing shop clerks in a perfumery.
Set to catchy, lilting tunes, this Old World story is brought to life by a talented 17-member ensemble directed by Beth Terranova, who recently won a 2009 Washington Area Theater Community Honors (WATCH) award for Best Director for CP's Hauptmann and who is proving her versatility with this musical confection.
In her Director's Notes, Terranova reminds us that "anonymous social networking, job jitters, courting customers in a depressed economy all sound like a current story lineup." She also notes that this story was first dramatized in Miklos Laszlo's 1937 European play and later became the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and most recently the 1998 Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film You've Got Mail that transformed the couple's handwritten letters into e-mail.
This collaboration of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick marked the first show produced by Harold Prince, the three collaborating the following year to create Fiddler on the Roof to make Broadway history. Although less well-known, She Loves Me has its own charming Hungarian ethnic quality reflected in its score. It endures because it allows one to escape to a simpler time where quirky characters surround lonely protagonists hindered by their own self-doubts and who seem to care more about love than sex.
Set by Terranova in 1942 Queens, N.Y., main clerk George Nowack at Maraczek's Perfume Shop, who is played by Nathan Bowen, confides to his colleague Ladislav Sipos that he has heard from his anonymous "dear friend." Soon Amalia Balash, played by Aimee Lambing, arrives seeking a job and proves her sales expertise by selling a new item to gain the attention of shop owner Mr. Maraczek. Jim Reiter, who also has a WATCH award for acting, brings a combination of authority and charming eccentricity to the Maraczek role.
The essence of Bowen's appealing Nowack is his natural ordinary guy image combined with his bright singing of "Tonight at Eight" and his Act 2 ecstatic delivery of the title song "She Loves Me." The feistiness and vulnerability of Lambing's Amalia is expressed vocally in her touching "Will He Like Me?" delivered in Lambing's clear soprano that suits the Amalia role, reaching perfection in her joyous "Vanilla Ice Cream."
Another relationship exists between haughty womanizing clerk Steven Kodaly, deftly played by Ron Giddings, and shop clerk Ilona Ritter, played by CP newcomer Ashley Sanford. Together Giddings' Kodaly and Sanford's Ilona provide song and dance highlights. Giddings sings "Ilona" with an easy slide into falsetto that accompanies a fabulous dance during which Giddings makes comic use of his diminutive partner's foot difference in height.
Triply talented Sanford creates a spunky Ilona to win us over with her brassy vocal renditions of "I Resolve" and "A Trip to the Library."
Delivery boy and aspiring shop clerk Arpad Laszlo is well played by Alex Foley. Danny Brooks adds maturity and a sense of hard reality as Ladislav Sipos, who is intent on keeping his job.
The ensemble has several chances to shine, notably in the Cafe Imperiale scene where CP debuting actor Roy Barbacow plays a captivating waiter.
In this musical, Colonial Players maintains this season's tradition of presenting gems retaining their luster through limited exposure instead of repeating more familiar fare.
She Loves Me continues at Colonial Players' 108 East Street theater in Annapolis on weekends Thursday through Sunday with the final performances scheduled for April 18 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. For tickets, call CP's box office at 410-268-7373 or go to www.cplayers.com.