For those who need reminders, this musical has a long history, both behind and in front of it. (Stay with me here) It all began as an East European play, apparently, but for most of is, it started as a beguiling 1940 movie called “The Shop Around The Corner,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Maureen Sullivan as sparring co-workers at a parfumerie in Budapest. Later it became a musical called “In The Good Old Summertime” starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson as sparring co-workers in a Chicago music store.
Then it begat “She Loves Me,” a relatively short-lived Broadway musical that debuted in 1963. Finally, in1998, Nora Ephron turned it into “You’ve Got Mail” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan not as co-workers but as competitors in the book business. And now “She Loves Me” is back where it belongs, starring Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel. Scott Ellis has directed this ‘easy on the eyes and ears’ Roundabout production at Studio 54.
The songs are not ones you necessarily recognize– with the exception of “Will He Like Me?” and perhaps “Ice Cream”—but for a good reason. They fit so seamlessly into the story that it is almost impossible to imagine them as stand alones. Sheldon Harnick – whose “Fiddler On The Roof” is playing nearby – wrote some memorable lyrics (”None younger than I in days gone by”) for this one as well. The man behind the music is Jerry Bock and the words spoken but not sung come from Joe Masteroff. How refreshing not to have someone deconstructing, darkening or minimizing the work….but letting it play as originally conceived.
The story focuses on the pair of employees who clash from day one, albeit with instant chemistry. (“They like each other very much. Don’t you think we should tell them?”) The conceit is they are secretly smitten by a pen pal who turns out….well, you know the rest. Remember, Lonely Hearts Clubs long preceded Tinder and Match.Com, yet the sentiments are not so far removed.
The couple at the center of this tale is crucial, and Levi and Benanti squeeze every ounce of humor from the material. Watching Benanti eat a pint of ice cream – while trying to avoid getting salty tears in it – is priceless. She is really one of our theatrical treasures these days, perhaps just below Audra Macdonald and Kelli O’Hara on the MVP list. She is funny, beautiful, endearing and a stunning soprano. All the other performers get their big moments and while some veer into the mugging category, they generally deliver beautifully.
The sets, by David Rockwell, are colorful and charming, beginning with the Faberge Egg of a perfume shop in 1930s Budapest. The costumes by Jeff Mahshie are equally delicious.
This is sweet stuff, much like the vanilla ice cream downed by Laura Benanti. But it has just enough crunch and nuttiness to keep it on this side of saccharine.