She Loves Me is a gorgeous chocolate box musical, sweet and full of treats. It is an ideal musical for the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre and Matthew White’s production is superbly old-fashioned as well as cheeky and delightful. Beautifully cast, and with magnificent musical support from Catherine Jays and her band, She Loves Me is as lush and evocative as the perfumes sold by Mr. Maraczek’s quirky, lovable staff. Sheer delight.
The programme for the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre revival of She Loves Me, playing til March, reveals this exchange between director Matthew White and lyricist Sheldon Harnick:
MW: Our production uses British accents – this inevitably brings with it the issue of class. Was that something that interested you when you were first writing the piece?
SH: Speaking for myself, I never gave a thought to the matter of ‘class’ when working on She Loves Me. Now that I think about it, I guess I assumed that everyone but Maraczek would have been middle class and very much like myself.
She Loves Me revels in its exotic, old-fashioned dizziness. It is a near perfect concoction distilled from three love stories, mistaken identities, jealousy and retail therapy. It has nothing to do with class and really can’t function as it ought if the class card is in play.
White’s decision to use English accents is, then, perplexing. It cuts across the Hungarian setting and, particularly in the case of Katherine Kingsley’s Ilona, it gets in the way of the gentle comedy. Accents lead to stereotypes here and that leads to the audience laughing at the characters, not with them.
It’s an odd mis-step from White who otherwise conjures up a revival of She Loves Me which irons out creases caused by the age of this musical and cracks caused by the age in which it is being revived. Unfazed by modern audiences obsessed with Wicked, Hamilton or In The Heights, White permits his cast to revel in the style and charm of the time in which She Loves Me was written and first produced. Apart from the accents, White’s approach is sound and produces a feast for eyes and ears.
Paul Farnsworth’s quite beautiful set design emphasises the fairy tale aspect of the plot: everything looks and feels like a confectionery box from a snowy European city. Clever use of revolves adds to the effect, as crisply arranged interiors are revealed in their glory and pastel shades of riotous colours give every scene a warm, generous glow. Paul Pyant’s lighting uses shadows to good effect, marking out the melodramatic elements clearly and wrapping the heady romantic moments in just-the-right light.
Farnsworth’s costumes are also spot on – spiffing and beautifully tailored, in colours that might be regarded as unusual today, but all the more beguiling because of that. The sense of the period is ebullient throughout. This is not a production afraid to be shamelessly old-fashioned. And therein lies its strength.
White eschews any attempt to modernise She Loves Me. Rather he identifies its strengths and then ensures the cast plays directly to them. This is a different tack to that taken recently on Broadway and this production is far superior to that one as a result.
Catherine Jays works miracles in the music department, cajoling the seven piece band into briskly and brightly enlivening Jason Carr’s spare, but impactful, orchestrations. Tempi are sound and the melodies are given full flow. Diction is given the importance it deserves and the ensemble work is exuberant and richly harmonic. Jerry Bock’s score is given superb treatment despite the absence of a full strings section.
This is not a musical which falls or rises on its choreography, but Rebecca Howell nevertheless energises the dance aspects whenever she can. Her work with the ensemble is inventive and smartly sexy, and it supports the narrative and the efforts of the principal cast very well. The movement language of the rituals inside Maraczek’s Parfumerie is gentle and sweet, and despite repetition, they never overstay their welcome.
She Loves Me features seven principal characters, each one carefully drawn and requiring particular skills. Vocally, the score makes special demands upon the women, but, equally, it asks a deal of the men too. It is, then, a musical which requires performers of real skill in both acting and singing; it is not a musical where “stars” can get away with personalising their roles.
Les Dennis is probably the biggest “star” in the cast, even though, at least in musical theatre circles, Scarlett Strallen, Mark Umbers and Katherine Kingsley are the ones with serious achievements in the genre. But there is no difficulty with Dennis’ casting – he is a genial and confused Maraczek and he manages to make the volatile father/son relationship with Umbers’ Georg entirely believable. He does a nice job of wrapping Maraczek’s soft centre in an ostensibly gruff exterior and the scene where he agrees to promote Arpad, often a dire moment in the show, is genuinely warm. Dennis’ star status helps to mark out the distance between Maraczek and his employees. An near ideal choice.
As Ladislav Sipos, Alistair Brookshaw makes something out of next to nothing. Sipos is a character vital to the plot but surplus to needs otherwise. Usually, the other characters overwhelm Sipos and he is forgotten as soon as the final curtain falls. Brookshaw, however, through the sheer force of his skill, makes Sipos memorable and affecting. He uses the character’s blandness and fear to craft a genuine soul, one who is funny and appealing. For the first time, I wished there was a ballad for Sipos, a moment for him to really bask in the sun.
Oddly, Callum Howells, despite being perhaps the ideal age for Arpad (Howells is 17) does not hit the right note. Desperately over-eager, he tries too hard to be genial and effervescent; the result is sadly flat. His Act Two opening number, Try Me, while sung well enough, suffers from the over-egging; where it should be impish and excitable, it is brash and irritating. Howells has a good stage presence, and his over-jealous approach is admirably consistent. His Welsh accent doesn’t assist either. His innate charm is sufficient to enliven Arpad; less would have been decidedly more in his case.
Steven Kodaly is not quite the villain of the piece, that honour probably goes to the unseen Mrs Maraczek, but he is certainly the character who causes the most mischief, and not just with Kingsley’s lovelorn Ilona. Dominic Tighe proves to be a perfect Kodaly, smarmy and sexy, utterly obsessed with his own pleasures. Tighe makes Kodaly a creature constantly in motion, always looking for a way to improve his own position. His small moments are just as fascinating as his part in bigger set pieces.
Tighe brings a manly assuredness to his scenes. His fine baritone voice makes light work of the score and his rendition of Grand Knowing You is a real treat.
It is not every real life couple who can translate their off-stage relationship into a genuine on-stage one, but Tighe manages that very well with his off-stage partner, Kingsley, who plays Ilona, Kodaly’s co-worker and the object of his lustful attention – temporarily at least. Their scenes together have a real frisson as the competing urges of contentment and ardour battle it out between them. There is an openness in their physical interactions which speaks eloquently of tossed sheets and torrid romance, and they have a vast repertoire of looks and moments which they draw upon to add texture to the characters’ up and down relationship.
Of all of the cast, Kingsley is the one whose performance suffers most, and really comes to be defined by, the accent she uses. Her Ilona sounds like a more common version of Are You Being Served‘s Miss Brahms. This unbalances the character and makes her seem more odd than is necessary.
A Trip To The Library, which ought to be a tour de force moment, is changed completely by the use of the cockney accent. It becomes a kind of Eliza Dolittle moment rather than the hopeful, romantic surprise it should be. Arguably, Ilona is the character who suffers the most over the course of She Loves Me, but who ultimately finds the possibility of real happiness in a surprising place; Kingsley’s use of an accent changes that fundamentally, and not for the better.
I Don’t Know His Name is a delightful duet in Act One for Ilona and Amalia (Scarlett Strallen’s character) but, by having the women sing their parts in different accents, it becomes spiky and snarky, almost as if Ilona was trying to outdo Amalia. What a difference an accent makes.
Strallen is superb throughout as Amalia. She plays all of the character’s extremes with glee and commitment, but she is always endearing, ensuring that the audience is desperate for her to finally get her Georg. She is funny and ravishing in equal measure – from her terrific act of salesmanship that leads Maraczek to hire her on the spot to her hangover afflicted rendition of Vanilla Ice Cream.
Her pure, glorious soprano is put to great use and Strallen rises to every considerable challenge posed by Bock’s ravishing score. Her top notes ring gloriously in Vanilla Ice Cream, and she illuminates every melodic passage in Dear Friend and Will He Like Me? with accomplished silky assurance, making the phrases bright and brilliant. Strallen is, like another character she has played superbly, practically perfect in every way.
The last time Mark Umbers was in a musical he was in outstanding form, playing the narcissistic Franklin Shepherd in Merrily We Roll Along. Frank and She Loves Me‘s Georg may be two characters as unlike each other as it is possible to be, but Umbers proved to be a quite perfect Georg, channelling his inner Cary Grant to great effect and allowing no trace of Frank in his performance as Georg, even when the romance with Amalia sees Georg’s confidence grow.
Georg is a complex mix of insecurities and uncertainties, at least on a personal level, and this comes to fruition in his terrific tongue-twisting number Tonight At Eight which Umbers delivers with zany glee. (Unaccountably, White interrupts the song for some dialogue which slightly diminishes its effect, but this is no fault of Umbers’) With clever detail, Umbers makes Georg winningly odd and curiously eccentric. Never has hand wringing seemed so comical.
Umbers has magnetic stage appeal which matches Strallen’s serious stage allure. Together, they work very well together, with clear chemistry that helps make the vagaries of the narrative flow seamlessly.
Three Letters and Where’s My Shoe are not archetypal duets for lovers in musical, but they really shine here, with Strallen and Umbers both using their voices to augment their considerable dramatic – and comic – acting skills.
She Loves Me is another great success for the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre and it really should transfer to the West End. Its bright, breezy and hopelessly silly – a musical with endless appeal for anyone interested well told stories and beautifully sung and played scores.