Fort Worth — Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick led a charmed life in the musical theater of the 1950s and ‘60s. After Fiorello! (1959)—their Tony Award/Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about Mayor LaGuardia of NYC—and just before Fiddler on the Roof became an instant classic in 1964, the team crafted a little gem of a musical called She Loves Me (1963), with a book by Joe Masteroff. It’s an adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s much-loved 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, the story of two clerks in a Budapest emporium of the 1930s who don’t know they are exchanging anonymous love letters with (gasp!) each other (the film was based on Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie). If the plot sounds familiar, the story also became a Judy Garland film, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan You’ve Got Mail (1998).
She Loves Me, revived by Stolen Shakespeare Guild in an uneven but often beguiling production, shows Bock and Harnick at the peak of their craft—lyrics alternately witty and tender, songs infused with an Old World, Eastern European charm. Imagine a Viennese café orchestra playing behind the action (the score is pre-recorded) and you have the feel of it all. This is a musical that never quite became famous—but one that remains a favorite of many music theater folk on and offstage.
SSG’s show, directed by the versatile Robin Armstrong, revolves around the purely lovely voice of SSG co-founder Lauren Morgan, who soars through the vocally demanding role of lovelorn clerk Amalia, even hitting the highest of high notes when it’s called for in a song about “Vanilla Ice Cream.” Almost everyone in the cast gets a moment in the spotlight and rises to the occasion: timid clerk Sipos (Evan Faris) preaches his keep-your-head-down philosophy of life in “Perspective”; man-handled shopgirl Ilona (Sarah Powell) tells how “A Trip to the Library” changed her life; unhappy shop owner Maraczek (Martin Antonio Guerra-West) touchingly recalls “Days Gone By”; and smarmy ladykiller Kodaly (M. Shane Hurst) gets his exit song, “Grand Knowing You.”
The head waiter (Billy Betsill) of a dimly lit café tries to preserve “A Romantic Atmosphere”; a limber dancing busboy (Nathan Dibben) gets chummy with the customers; and delivery boy Arpad (William Wheeler) tries to work his way up the corporate ladder in “Try Me.” The excellent ensemble gets our whole attention in the frenetic “Twelve Days to Christmas,” where they begin as well-organized “plenty of time” shoppers and end in a desperate scrum over packages on Christmas Eve.
Brad Stephens, as Amalia’s unknown lover and fellow clerk Georg, is wonderful in the title song “She Loves Me,” but he needs to put some of that energy—and that great smile!—into the first act, where the Georg we meet seems too flat and ordinary. Yes, he’s only a head clerk in a small shop—but even at first, we ought to see a flash or two of the spark that makes him Amalia’s passionate letter-writing “friend.” By the end of the show there’s some chemistry between these two, but it’s a long time coming.
Jason and Lauren Morgan, with their master carpenter Keith Glenn, have designed a particularly mobile set: the storefront of the shop comes apart in wheeled sections to reveal the shop interior. Everything is on wheels, and the puzzle pieces are rearranged swiftly to become the store stockroom, Amalia’s bedroom or the red-satined walls of the café where she and Georg are to meet. As usual, Karen Matheny choreographs impressively for this smallish space, and Kylie Frandsen adds some tango spin to the café number that makes it an energy highpoint. And kudos to the tuxedoed, tango-ing Samantha Snow and Jessica Taylor for a beautiful bit of dancing. The only technical gripe of the evening is that while recent SSG musicals have done a great job of keeping the music from overwhelming the singers, this one struggles to get the right balance. There’s a lot of good singing (and great lyrics) being covered up by the sheer volume of the music. Seems like there might be an easy fix for that.
With its Christmas-tinged plot and touching story, She Loves Me should be a popular ticket over the holidays—and Lauren Morgan’s singing is something to hear. Thanks for bringing this “Dear Friend” around once more, SSG.