“She Loves Me” qualifies as a perfect musical. It has an engaging plot written by Joe Masteroff. It is constantly witty and loaded with interesting tributaries so everyone working in the story’s posh Budapest parfumerie has his or her story told and a big number to accent it.
Meanwhile Jerry Bock’s music beautifully and cleverly capitalizes on the crying voice of the gypsy violin and telltale traits of Eastern European composition while remaining fresh and original. His overture is a dream, and some phrases in the songs “Dear Friend” and “Vanilla Ice Cream” are as thrilling as they are gorgeous.
And best of all are Sheldon Harnick’s stunningly arch and laudably intelligent lyrics that weave plot elements into songs that would work just as well if one knew nothing about “She Loves Me.” Everything from the bitterness of love to 19th century novelist Samuel Butler’s socially critical “Way of All Flesh” is referenced in Harnick’s masterful verbal display. It ranges from touching love songs, hilarious characters pieces, and a slew of ensemble numbers that epitomize deftness while moving the story forward.
Can you tell this is my favorite of all musicals ever produced?
Productions vary, of course, but “She Loves Me” never fails to delight, and David Kellett’s staging, running weekends through Sunday, June 30, at the Princeton Festival is no exception.
Kellett and company are not perfect, but where it counts most, particularly in a crucial sequence in a romantic cafe, they come through to show how brilliantly Masteroff, Bock, and Harnick rendered the story about two pen pals who, unbeknownst to either, work together with contention that belies their amiable letters.
Moviegoers may know the couple from “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) or another musical offshoot, “In the Good Old Summertime” (1949).
Kellett’s production works best in intimate moments that draw viewers into both the epistolary and abrasive parts of the pen pals’ relationship, always keeping the irony of their love-hate tussle intact.
He also makes the most of occasions when secondary characters reveal their lives and concerns in funny musical soliloquies that include everything from a toady’s cosmological philosophy about always agreeing to an affair-prone woman’s wonder about why she never meets her boyfriends’ mothers.
Where Kellett’s “She Loves Me” often devolves into a minor mess is in the group numbers. All of these make their point and establish what Masteroff and the composers had in mind, but they seem crowded and unfocused instead of crisp and cognizant of lyricist Harnick’s contributions to the show.
It all becomes of matter of when and how to have characters move and when even a hectic number needs time to breathe.
Granted, Kellett has a tight space to work with, and often a slew of people to fit in it, but more definition, and especially more attention to the lyrics, would strengthen these scenes.
Nevertheless these blemishes are minor, a byproduct of the traffic control a big show like “She Loves Me” requires. The overall charm of Kellett’s production and skill of his performers smooth over these flaws as neatly as one of the parfumerie’s cold creams erase crow’s feet or an annoying zit.
Among the outstanding assets is the performance of Amy Weintraub in the pivotal role of Amalia, a woman who would rather read or go to concerts than toil in a store but has sales skills that win her a retail job even when there was no opening for one.
Weintraub adroitly blends Amalia’s tough, sarcastic side with her longingly romantic traits. She can reel off a riposte and look tragically wounded with equal aplomb. She also has a voice that soars through a space that often dwarfs sound. Her songs, “Vanilla Ice Cream” and “Dear Friend,” are vocally demanding, and Weintraub meets every challenge with a clear soprano that brings out the beauty and intensity of both numbers.
She is just as adept in the comic confusion of “Where’s My Other Shoe,” a wonderful vignette in which Amalia is missing one major item while fighting to get to work on time.
Tommy MacDonell reminds one of “Shop Around the Corner’s” James Stewart as he exudes both the average guy working in a store and the connoisseur of art and literature exposed to Amalia in his letters to her.
MacDonell captures the surprise and excitement of the title number, “She Loves Me,” and adds energy to all of his scenes. It’s crucial an audience like and root for MacDonell’s character, Georg, and MacDonell makes it so that his audience can’t do anything else.
“I Resolve” and “A Trip to the Library” are two of the best declarative numbers in musical theater, and Shannon Rakow brings out the glory of both of them.
Aaron Golden has just the right manipulative touch of Uriah Heep as he talks about never ruffling feathers. Patrick James, always a standout, finds the boulevardier and jealous lover in his character. James Conrad Smith has a magnificent voice and smooth dance moves. Brandon Walters meticulously shows the boyish and maturing nature of his character while acing his big musical number. Ethan Lynch is properly funny and exposes fine vocal skill as the headwaiter in “A Romantic Atmosphere.”
Nick Dorr’s set, complete with advertising posters, establishes the elegance and functional nature of the parfumerie. Marie Miller’s costumes suit the time, class, and taste of the characters.
She Love Me, Princeton Festival, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Through June 30. Thursdays (except June 13), Fridays, and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays, 4 p.m. $55. www.mccarter.org.