The holidays can be a busy time of year, but “She Loves Me” at Greater Boston Stage Company is the lighthearted, romantic musical comedy you’re going to want to make time for this season.
This Tony-Award winning show—with book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick—follows the story of two perfumery employees in Hungary during the 1930’s. Georg Nowack (Sam Simahk), is a senior clerk at Maraczek’s Perfumery and a bachelor who finds himself in love with an anonymous pen-pal. It is soon disclosed to the audience, however, that his pen pal is none other than Ms. Amalia Balash (Jennifer Ellis), an enthusiastic if not unreliable new clerk in his store. While their in-person relationship teeters between unpleasant and hostile as they work together, their romantic relationship unfolds behind the mask of lonely hearts letters, with neither character realizing it is the other with whom they are corresponding.
These themes of love and missed connections are common ones within romances, serving as the backdrop for hundreds of different stories on the screen, the stage, and even the pages of novels. Yet, when accompanied by the thoughtful vision of Director and Choreographer, Ilyse Robbins, and the enthusiastic performances of this character-driven cast, it’s easy for audiences to get lost in the journey as if for the first time.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Robbins’ “She Loves Me” and similar love stories of the past, is the incredibly relatable portrayal of the leading couple. Rather than caricatures of lovelorn women and suave but misunderstood bachelors, Ellis’ Amalia and Simahk’s Georg are depicted as real people with skills, friendships, and lives outside of their quest for love. What’s more, Ellis and Simahk do a stunning job of embracing their characters’ flaws and transforming imperfections like Amalia’s flakiness and Georg’s short temper into the types of endearing qualities that make us human. This in turn opens the characters up into people the audience can actually identify with, illustrating a story of love and mistaken identities that feels much more like a reality than a Hallmark movie.
Robbins also uses comedy expertly throughout the production, both in the blocking and the musical numbers, to add an entirely new and lighthearted layer to the story. The song “Where’s My Shoe?” for example—in which Amalia, having taken a heartsick day from work, is confronted by Georg for staying home—features Ellis stubbornly bumbling around her bedroom wearing only one high heel, and side stepping Georg and his attempts to get her to lay back down. This scene did a fantastic job of highlighting not only Ellis’ breathtaking soprano, but her extraordinary comedic timing and physicality, as well.
In another instance, the entire Ensemble portrays carolers and shoppers at Maraczek’s Perfumery in the days leading up to Christmas. Throughout the song, “Twelve Days to Christmas,” the carolers and shoppers run in and out of the store, their insanity and panic about getting the perfect last minute holiday present growing and growing as the days until Christmas dwindle down to one. This panic is reflected not only physically by the shoppers—who are left practically doubled over in shopping-induced exhaustion by the end of the song—but vocally, as their speed and intensity builds to an all-time high. Clever and well executed numbers like this add a wonderful energy to “She Loves Me,” something that often falls flat in contemporary performances of Golden Age musicals.
Alongside the occasions for laugh-out-loud moments like this, this script also provides many rare opportunities for the exploration and development of dynamic secondary characters. Tied into the narrative through their work at Maraczek’s Perfumery, these characters are given real chances to shine through witty dialogue, complex relationships, and solo musical numbers. And in the hands of the incredible supporting cast of this production, which includes many Boston favorites, these roles brought forth even more humor and heart than what is presumably written on the page.
Jared Trolio gives an outstanding performance as resident “player” in the perfumery Steven Kodaly, that one character that audiences can’t help but love to hate. In his rendition of “Ilona,” which he sings to fellow clerk and ex-lover, Ilona Ritter (Aimee Doherty) in an effort to get back into her good graces, Trolio sambas around the stage, successfully captivating both the audience and Ritter with his smooth voice, suave dance moves, and comedic use of Christmas decorations as tools in his seduction.
Subsequently, Doherty’s Ritter, a romantically forward woman, is developed to be an interesting foil to Ellis’ Amalia. Where Amalia faces feelings of insecurity in her quest of for love, Ilona definitely knows what she has to offer, despite being dragged along by the undeserving Kodaly. Doherty’s powerful “I Resolve,” leaves audiences truly rooting for her character to find the happiness she deserves, a testament to Doherty’s touching performance.
Rounding out the talented cast are perfumery owner, Mr. Maraczek (Tom Gleadow), sales clerk Ladislav Sipos (Robert Saoud), and delivery boy, Arpad Laszlo (Brendan Callahan), whose lopsided smile and boyish energy had audiences won over far before his sweet rendition of “Try Me” in Act Two.
Robbins also found creative ways to highlight the show’s immensely talented Ensemble in this production–which includes Sara Coombs, Sean Mitchell Crosley, Bransen Gates, Angelo McDonough, Jennifer Mischley, Sarajane Morse Mullins, and Kirsten Salpini—through moments of well executed comedy and movement. Especially for a production that could have easily excluded choreography for lack of space or plot advancement, Robbins found smart ways of integrating both formal dance and synchronized movement into the piece, using it not only in moments of transition, but as a way to help establish the tone in various scenes.
This tactic worked particularly well while establishing a scene in an upscale restaurant. As members of the cast skillfully manipulated Scenic Designer, Brynna Bloomfield’s beautiful perfumery set into a dining area—the backdrop for Georg and Amalia’s would-be first date—others in the Ensemble arrived on stage in formal evening gowns, evolving somehow seamlessly from a Horah-like dance into a gorgeous tango. Although only really a written as a transitionary piece, this choreography, coupled with Nick Sulfaro’s scene-stealing performance as the snarky Head Waiter, allowed the scene to develop into a living and breathing piece of theater within the larger show as a whole, only further emphasizing the intricate vision Robbins had for this production.
Truly the only complaint to be had after watching this story ramp up to the inevitable happy ending, is that after Georg and Amalia do share their first kiss, there’s simply no more story left to see. The lights go black, the audience begins to clap, and the characters on stage are replaced by actors, taking their final bow and enjoying a very well-earned applause.
It is a testament to Robbins’ direction that after two and a half hours of watching these characters’ lives unfold, audiences are still left wanting more. And although there is nothing more written after the happy ending, I know that I will soon be returning to Greater Boston Stage Company to experience the journey of “She Loves Me” from start to finish once again.
“She Loves Me” runs through December 23rd at Greater Boston Stage Company. For tickets visit www.greaterbostonstage.org or contact the Box Office at (781) 279-2200. Greater Boston Stage Company is located at 295 Main Street in Stoneham, MA. Photos: Maggie Hall