Theater review: SHE LOVES ME

 – Ordinarily, going all the way to Budapest to see a good show would be too far to go.

But in the case of Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s current production of the musical She Loves Me, which is set in that East-European capital, the journey is more than worth it.

This 1963 musical by Joe Masteroff and Jerry Bock is based on one of the most frequently adopted pieces of literature in the 20th century. It began as the 1937 play Parfumerie by Miklós László, and served as the basis for three films: the romantic comedies The Shop Around the Corner(1940) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), and the musical, In the Good Old Summertime(1949).

But this more recent stage musical has proven to be one of the most enduring adaptations, having had a strong initial outing and a couple of revivals on Broadway, with still another slated for next year. Plus, it has been a frequent visitor to regional and community theaters since its debut.

Set in a shop dealing in perfumes and various female notions (of every type), She Loves Me tracks the halting romance between fellow employees Georg (Brad Stephens) and Amalia (Lauren Morgan). The pair fall for one another in the course of an anonymous correspondence, which was apparently one of the ways boys met girls in the story’s day. But, when they just happen to wind up working in the same perfumery, they develop a highly antagonistic relationship without knowing they are the people who so warmly call one another “dear friend” when putting pen to paper (something else people used to do).

Since the course of true love seldom runs smooth on the musical comedy stage, it takes them a few major misunderstandings and several delightful numbers to get their hearts in the right place. Their efforts in that direction receive little help from their fellow bath oil peddlers, all of whom have problems of their own.

So, given the durable track record of this story, it is no shock that the plot pulls you right along. But you may be surprised at the overall quality of all of the components of this production, which marks the debut of the highly-talented and widely-booked director Robin Armstrong with this company.

Just about everyone and everything in this show sparkles like fresh snowflakes. Stephens sings his role with gusto and a strong sense of character. Morgan, who is one of the founders of the company, lends a beautiful voice to her part that we too seldom hear in this company’s shows. Sarah Powell, as the shop girl Ilona, delivers her numbers in a manner that matches her striking and fiery red tresses.

The efforts of these leading characters are consistently equaled by the supporting players. Even the minor part of the head waiter at a restaurant where Georg and Amalia have an awkward rendezvous is delivered with great verve by Billy Betsill. Most of the other singers come through just as well. But Evan Faris, as the insecure clerk Sipos, needs to have more confidence in his voice and let it rip when his number is up.

Armstrong, who is admired for her work with madcap farces, does an excellent job in her maiden voyage with a musical. She brings a keen sense of comedy and motion to her staging that gloriously enlivens the material. And her vision of the piece is perfectly complemented by Karen Matheny’s inspired choreography. The bountiful fruits of their partnership is most apparent in the staging of A Romantic Atmosphere, one of the show’s best numbers in every regard, which also features the input of Kylie Frandsen for its tango moves.

The show’s set, by Morgan, her husband Jason Morgan and Keith Glenn, is almost a character unto itself. Its rolling parts are brilliant in their design and dazzling in their execution. The only knock is that the look is far too bare. The shop’s exterior, especially needs a sign, and the interior needs some wall decorations.

Also exceptional are the period costumes designed by Armstrong and Lauren Morgan (is there anything these women can’t do?) for this show set in 1937 before and through Christmas.

The primary shortcoming of the production is that it relies on a recorded score. But that fault is offset somewhat by the fact that we get to enjoy the show’s wonderful voices without amplification in the cozy confines of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

So, while there are just a few rough edges, there is a lot to love in this musical from a company far better-known for its works from the Bard and Jane Austen adaptations. Everything about this She Loves Me makes it easy to love it.

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