Centerville — She Loves Me is a musical that you either love to dip into and sprawl about in its saccharine sweetness, or you leave with a toothache and a bellyache from sugar overload. Set in 1930s Budapest, this love letter to a bygone era is, as director Shelby Ferrin describes, “a fine concoction, a ganache-covered chocolate with hints of honey and rose, something meant to be savored from beginning to end. Its impact is still a ‘sugar rush’, but the journey there is entirely different.” The basic plot centers on feuding anonymous pen pals and plays on various romantic tropes before coming to its inevitable, satisfying conclusion. Ferrin is a clear fan of this little gem of a show, as am I, in the right production. Ferrin applies a deft and humorous hand to the borderline clichés, and the result is beautiful and atmospheric and yes, sweet.
First of all the director has assembled a strong production staff who are all on board with his vision and worked wonders in bringing it to life. Music Director Brittney Salazar did a lovely job with a difficult, challenging score. Each cast member was a strong vocalist who held their own in the tight harmonies and intricate counterpoint melodies. The leading actors were polished and extremely accomplished performers and everyone was so well cast! With a score like She Loves Me, the vocal prowess of Georg and Amalia will make or break the production. Ben Lowell and Claire Gliattli were more than up to the task. Their comedic timing and onstage chemistry (repulsion and attraction are chemical reactions, right?) was quite delightful, capturing their love-hate-low-key-obsessive-naivete wonderfully. Gliattli was the funniest Amalia I’ve seen. Lowell was earnest and forthright and boy scout-ish, which played well opposite his Amalia’s charm. I enjoyed watching them spar and argue and contend with each other so unreasonably. It was ridiculous and silly and endearing at the same time. (At this point I should mention that my husband grew weary early on of the relentless ‘misunderstandings’, complaining that it was like every ‘Three’s Company’ episode ever written and Amalia would never forgive Georg for lying to her for so long. He’s not wrong, really. Just be sure that your theatre bring-along buddy understands and loves sappy Hallmark rom-coms and they’ll be fine.)
Other stand out performances were Jordyn Tracy as Ilona Ritter and Merrick Masters-Rizzi as Arpad Laszlo. Tracy walked the fine line between temptress and tramp, her big solo number “A Trip to the Library” about her optometrist Paul was unexpected and enjoyable. I really wanted Ilona to find love and happiness! And Masters was just plain adorable as the eager-to-be-promoted errand boy who rises to unexpected challenges and sings like an angel. Choreography by Marilyn Montgomery was deceptively simple, but undoubtedly played a much bigger role in the success of the production than at first impression. My favorite was the staging for “Twelve Days to Christmas,” which communicated the increasing urgency of necessary Christmas shopping as the days count down to the holiday and shoppers get more frantic and less choosy. The “Tango Tragique” and “A Romantic Atmosphere” were also fun showcases for the ensemble’s talents.
Additional production elements such as costume and lighting design helped establish time and place effectively. Costume Designer Tammis Boam did a generally lovely job with the ladies’ wear, while the men’s suits were a little less distinctive. Of the men, Georg’s three-piece blue suit was the most striking. The rest were effective in that they gave insight into character and age and status. Details were spot on with hats and gloves and outerwear keeping everything consistent. Lighting Designer Collin Schmierer was effective in showing the passage of time and focusing attention where it needed to be. Little touches like the star curtain and pinpoint spotlights were very pleasant. But the set design stole the show completely. Truxton Moulton created a storefront and interior worthy of Main Street USA in Disneyland. Every detail was given careful attention. Scenic Charge Artist Cynthia Klumpp and Scenic Artist Janae Klumpp Gibb worked magic on ordinary theatre flats, transforming them into a quaint European street. Those who are familiar with Klumpp’s artistic style will clearly recognize her hand here. Maraczek’s Perfumery shop was so refined and elegant, anyone would want to spend their days there, feeling like a truly pampered lady. In fact the audience applauded the set twice, once when the curtain rose to reveal the exterior street view, and again when it opened ingeniously to reveal the interior. The Café Imperial rose smoothly from the floor to provide the background for the awkward and heart-breaking ‘rendezvous that wasn’t’ between Amalia and her ‘dear friend’. Based on the audience reactions around me and the conversations I overheard at intermission, I would hazard a guess that the set will be the most memorable element of this show. Along with the set, the props (Marilyn Montgomery) walked hand in hand in creating a believable vintage perfume shop. The attention to detail was remarkable.
This shop around the corner is a lovely way to spend an evening, and strikes the right balance of beauty, talent, elegance, and sweetness. In the run up to February 14th, this valentine to romantic comedies would be a wonderful valentine to a loved one as well. (Just be sure they have a taste for a tad bit of schmaltz and are willing to suspend their disbelief for an evening.) She Loves Me is a gem of a show and this production does it abundant justice.