“She Loves Me,” a fine romantic musical comedy that opened last weekend at Cottage Theatre, has a long and distinguished parentage.
The 1963 Broadway show is an adaptation of “Parfumerie,” a 1936 play by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo that tells a classic – practically mythical – story of lovers’ comunications gone awry. So strong is the tale that Laszlo’s play was adapted into three separate movies, including the 1940 Jimmy Stewart flick “The Shop Around the Corner” and the 1998 rom-com “You’ve Got Mail.”
Between the original production and its 1994 Broadway revival, “She Loves Me” won two Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards.
The story is sweet and simple. Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, the manager and a newly hired sales clerk at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Budapest, create hostile sparks when they’re together but spend their separate evenings penning wistful letters to anonymous admirers they’ve each met through a lonely-hearts ad.
It takes Georg, played here by Eric Elligott, and Amalia, by Phoebe Gildea, most of the two and a half hour play to realize they’ve been unwittingly writing all along to each other.
Their budding romance is set amid a cast of characters that include Mr. Maraczek (Paul von Rotz), the proprietor of the store and husband to a philandering wife; Ilona Ritter, the needy 30-something clerk who’s so desperate to find a man that she even hangs out in the library; Steven Kodaly (Mark VanBeever), the ladies’ man who is her sometimes-attentive companion; and the sad Ladislav Sipos (Earl Ruttencutter), a family man who sucks up his pride each day because he can’t afford to be fired from his job.
A charming turn is done by Bradyn Debysingh as Arpad Laszlo, the shop’s ambitious delivery boy.
For a romantic comedy, “She Loves Me” offers a surprisingly dark reflection on life and the masks we use to survive it. While superficially friendly and happy, the employees at Maraczek’s are trapped in a world they can’t find their way out of. There were no jobs to escape to in the wrecked economy of 1937 Budapest, just as there aren’t that many in 2014 Oregon, so everyone puts on a false face to deal with day to day reality.
Even the set, designed here by Janet Whitlow, reflects the world’s dual nature: The exterior walls of the building that houses Maraczek’s transform nimbly into its lavish interior, just as the confused lovers of the story flip quickly from pining for each other to arguing.
This duality is reflected in the play’s sharply funny dialog. At one point, Sipos mentions to Arpad that Georg and Amalia, despite all appearances, actually like each other, a lot.
“They like each other very much?” a stunned Arpad says. “Don’t you think we should tell them?”
Directed by Ron Judd, the Cottage Theatre production is straightforward, with solid pacing and occasional flashes of brilliance, such as the hilarious scene that takes place in the cafe where Georg and Amalia have made their first date to meet in person.
The music is excellent throughout, with a live eight-piece ensemble performing on stage; Larry Kenton is musical director.
There is a slight but unfortunate musical mismatch between Elligott and Gildea, as Georg and Amalia. She’s trained as an opera singer, and sounds it; his voice is fine, but doesn’t match her power and vibrato. But the two actors bring enough chemistry to their stage romance to overcome their lack of perfect harmony.
“She Loves Me” is that odd musical without much hummable music and without any strong single song that captivated the public. That may be because it’s more a play with music than a musical with a story. Whatever it is, I fell in love with this play when I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in 2010; the Cottage Theatre production has served to deepen my loyalty.
She Loves Me
Cottage Theatre, 700 Village Drive, Cottage Grove
Through Dec. 21