In his note in the Playbill for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of She Loves Me at Studio 54, Todd Haimes (Roundabout’s Artistic Director) opines as follows:
When it first opened in 1963, critics remarked that She Loves Me was a departure from the massive, production-number-heavy shows then ruling Broadway. This musical was something else – intimate and romantic, meticulously structured and steadfastly character driven. It had a wealth of memorable songs but not a kick line in sight. And those are the qualities that I most love about the show: it is small in stature but rich in detail.
Haimes is absolutely correct: She Loves Me is a sparkling jewel, a near perfect example of a chamber piece in musical form. Mozart might have written She Loves Me as an opera – it certainly has all the frothy Opera ingredients and it requires singers with serious voices. It is an adorable chocolate box confection – a silly, romantic, frivolous, and uplifting example of the musical theatre genre.
Like all jewels, it can dazzle you into hypnotic senselessness or be disappointingly flawed – or something in between. This She Loves Me, despite its highly accomplished and richly talented cast, does not dazzle as it should. It doesn’t disappoint but nor does it properly work its own special magic.
This has nothing to do with David Rockwell’s fairy-tale gorgeous set or Jeff Mahshie’s superb costumes. The work of both men is detailed, inventive and magical. Rockwell creates a version of the candy coloured town squares which can be found peppered throughout Europe, and nestled in the centre, like an extremely pretty candy Easter Egg, is a small structure – almost a Gingerbread House but for goodies that are inedible – which is the Maraczek Parfumerie. It looks unbelievably inviting, in colours which speak to childhood, sweetheart encounters, and retail therapy of the most indulgent kind.
When the Parfumerie opens, it reveals an Aladdin’s Cave of wonder, promise and extravagance. It look like a superior confection shop, with ribbons, packaging and branding that reeks style, but nothing for sale is edible. Looking at it makes you want to try the specialities and when a music box is unveiled as an item on sale, the sense of symmetry between that box and the Parfumerie is inescapable, ineffable, intoxicating.
The lighting design from Donald Holden is a triumph, capturing exactly the feel of European light, harnessing the powerful romance in different hues and vividly expressing emotion and plot where necessary – the occasion of Mr Maraczek’s shooting is both violent and comforting at once. David Brian Brown ensures that wigs and coiffures are sprightly and alluring – hair here is at a premium.
Everything looks wonderful. Until the sequence in the first Act which involves the Café Imperiale: in flies a backdrop which instantly lowers the tone, uplifts the veil of accomplished artistry, and reveals a production which suddenly, inexplicably, doesn’t know what it is doing. And, for a while, which regrettably feels like an eternity, this production goes slightly ga-ga.
The question is “Why?”. The answer, as so often is the case when one is pondering theatrical misfortunes, lies in casting and directorial vision.
Here, the director is Scott Ellis, who helmed the 1993 revival of She Loves Me and who has returned to the piece in Roundabout’s 50th year celebratory season. Except in minor ways, there is no attempt to update or re-imagine Joe Masteroff’s book, Jerry Bock’s score or Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. But the production has a more modern feel to it than might be expected.
In some ways, this version of She Loves Me struck one more as a musical episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Showthan anything else: a complicated workplace, eccentric co-workers, a grumpy boss with a heart of gold, a central character whose neuroses are worn on the sleeve – here, the Mary character is male, Georg – and a profound sense of smart comedy and edgy romance. An undeniable, and quite effective, sitcom slant.
Except, the Mary character is not really exotic enough or neurotic enough. One supporting character outshines the female lead, curiously, and one supporting male character puts the Amp into Camp. And the Café Imperiale sequence is hopelessly unfunny, slightly desperate, and exposes the weaknesses in the two romantic leads when it should be a real part of their exultant triumph.
Frankly, all of this was easily avoidable, even without cast changes, and deeply regrettable. Unaccountably, sequences were burnished when they should have been polished – and, except in one case, this is not about talent or skill, it’s about directorial vision, unfocused musicality and occasional choreographic imprecision.
She Loves Me is a small scale romantic farce. It requires everyone to play their roles straight down the line, with utter, compelling commitment. Farce played for laughs never works; Farce played as seriously as Tragedy always works. Ellis should be well aware of that basic proposition.
Yet, this She Loves Me suggests otherwise.
Surprisingly, three key roles are miscast, to varying degrees, and two, if not miscast, are permitted to be played wrongly, to the overall detriment of the production.
Peter Bartlett’s mincing, acerbic and self-indulgent Headwaiter at the Café Imperiale nearly destroys the show. His laboured, ugly, and grotesquely dull characterisation of a fussy gorgon is about as funny as the sight of a baby’s open grave. It’s an old-fashioned, lazy, and ludicrously uninteresting performance and it shuts down the momentum that the major cast members had achieved to that point. It’s utterly unforgivable and totally incomprehensible.
Gavin Creel, a really wonderful and natural performer, is slightly at sea as the womanising Steven Kodaly. He appears more likely to be having a secret tryst with Nicholas Barasch’s unworldly Arpad Laslo than with the unseen Mrs Maraczek. Yet, in the first Act, his unashamedly salacious work with Jane Krakowski’s Ilona Ritter all reads well enough; they seem like a natural and effective sexual double act. On reflection, that seems more about Krakowski’s incredible personal charm and skill.
Creel sings well, although the top of his voice was not as effortlessly vibrant as in previous performances, and he dances with assiduous craft. His comic timing and sensibility is clever and hits bullseyes. But, in the second Act, when really his character should be unearthing his inner Robert Mitchum, Creel opts to unleash his inner Robert Helpmann. It’s all swirls and swishes and smart looks.
In the 1960’s, the sort of gay sensibility Creel utilises here worked and if this was a true period piece it might be superbly effective. But Ellis is giving this She Loves Me a more modern sensibility and while Creel is never awful, he is, at least in Act Two, not as magical as he could and should be. Creel is capable of better, more diligent work than this and Ellis ought have extracted it from him.
The third piece of extraordinary miscasting is that of Krakowski. As written, Ilona is not a sex-hungry man-eating predator with breasts for days and legs that go all the way to her armpits. She is shier, plainer, more taken advantage of than cheated on by Kodaly. Her library revelation is genuine and honest.
Despite that, Krakowski glows. She completely reinvents the role and makes it three parts femme fatale, one part dumb blonde, but at all times broad where a broad should be broad. She is winning in every way – whether shaking her bottom, giving an exhilarating example of what can be achieved with the Splits, or breathlessly repeating physical comedy in a myriad of slightly different, but increasingly funnier, ways.
Her voice is radiant, her diction perfect, and she eats up the comic possibilities of the character and then blows bubbles of pure pleasure which improve each and every moment in which she appears. Not a single laugh she aims for is not achieved. It’s a totally surprising and, ultimately, absolutely convincing reimagining of the role. In many ways, Krakowski is the performer at the top her game here and on the very best form. Despite being, essentially, totally miscast. A Trip To The Library is simply glorious.
Barasch’s Arpad, Michael McGrath’s Ladislav Sipos and Byron Jennings’ Mr Maraczek are all excellent. Barasch is particularly beguiling, a triumph of earnest, red-haired exuberance. His rendition of Try Me kickstarted the second Act with flair and style and did much to eradicate the alarming mis-steps of the latter part of the first Act. Jennings is in terrific form throughout, cantankerous, business-minded and genuine all at once. McGrath does the very hard job of being the not-so-interesting-one with style and considerable charm. Each plays off well with the others and together they make a backbone for the production which is sound and strong.
Laura Benanti is one of those timeless, enchanting performers who seems able to do anything at all. She is gorgeous in every way and here shows her comic abilities in their best light. Her timing is quite impeccable and I don’t think I have ever seen or heard a better version of Where’s My Shoe?
Curiously, for a performer who had no difficulty with the demands of the female lead in Most Happy Fella, Benanti seemed slightly ill at ease with the top of her voice here. It’s not that she couldn’t hit the notes in Vanilla Ice Cream or Dear Friend, it’s just that they didn’t float as freely as one had every right to expect given both the score and Benanti’s lustrous track record.
This is not to deny that Benanti’s work here is remarkable – it is. Ravishing is the only way to describe her appearance. She positively glows as Amalia, and brings a reckless assurance to the role which is surprising and refreshing. But it seems unlikely that this is the best Amalia Benanti has to offer.
Zachary Levi, in the starring role of Georg, is tall, handsome and unashamedly a matinee idol. He sings very well, with an easy style and unending charm. But he is not nearly eccentric enough to make the frisson of the anonymous love letters scenario seem realistic enough to propel the central comedic thrust of the narrative. He needs to be more goofy, more odd-ball, more outright screwball comedic.
This is most evident in Tonight At Eight, a fabulous patter song which relies for its show-stopping effectiveness on accelerating pace and increasingly angst-fuelled hysteria. Levi comes close, but no cigar. Again, this does not seem to be about ability, but expectation – Ellis has settled for a lesser Georg than that of which Levi is capable. Sadly.
Nevertheless, the second Act of this She Loves Me is as close as it comes to musical theatre goofy excellence. All of the solos are delivered with sumptuous style and make for an exceptional experience. Even though Creel is camper than ever in Grand Knowing You (that cane work!) it doesn’t really choke the building momentum. The final flurry of snowfall while the inevitable lovers finally unite makes one forgive almost all that went before it – not Bartlett though.
This cast ought to have produced a superior version of She Loves Me, a work which is the musical equivalent of Hay Fever or Blithe Spirit. Warren Carlyle and Paul Gemignani provide first rate choreography and musical direction respectively, although neither coaxes out the very very best in some of the principal cast.
But the real issue here is Ellis’ fractured vision for how She Loves Me can best play in 2016. He may have presided over the much lauded 1993 revival but as Reno Sweeney puts it: Times have changed.