I was prepared to say that a director would have to be crazy to mount She Loves Me without Barbara Cook, but I hadn’t reckoned on Peggy Yates.
Cook, whose liquid soprano was among the true glories of Broadway’s golden age, was the original “She” in the titlebright, bouncy, and very funny. She’d been overshadowed a few years earlier by Robert Preston in The Music Man and by Leonard Bernstein’s score in Candide, but was getting another chance to shine in this charmer of a chamber musical, only to be overshadowed by a whole season of star vehicles. (Her competition at Tony time included Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!, and Bea Lillie in High Spirits; she herself did not garner a nomination.)
Still, if playing a member of an ensemble wasn’t the way to get noticed in 1963, it was a good way to establish credentials with the criterati. Cook was to lose her hourglass figure and segue from Broadway to cabaret singing after She Loves Me, which barely eked out a nine-month run. But something about the show stuck in the public’s mind. Though she had introduced far more popular ballads in other shows, it was a schizoid comic ditty called “Vanilla Ice Cream” that became her signature numbera song whose mood switches she negotiates with such heartfelt originality in her club act that I’d have sworn no one else could make it her own.
Well, I’ve now been disabused of that notion. Yates not only pulls off the number (and many others) in Olney Theatre’s agreeably sentimental revival, she makes the task look downright effortless. A willowy brunette with an easy smile, a flair for comedy, and a ravishing voice, she’s playing Amalia, the slightly defensive, nervously assertive, and thoroughly capable newest salesgirl in Mr. Maraczek’s perfume shop. It’s easy to see why head clerk Georg (Stephen F. Schmidt) would find her at once attractive and unnerving.
She Loves Me is a musicalization of Miklos Laszlo’s romantic comedy Parfumerie, best known in this country for its movie versions: Ernst Lubitsch’s charming The Shop Around the Corner and Nora Ephron’s vulgar You’ve Got Mail. The plot concerns the discovery of two bickering co-workersAmalia and Georg argue constantly from the moment they lay eyes on each otherthat they’ve unwittingly been writing long, loving letters to each other through a sort of lonely-hearts club. The audience knows that they’re soul mates from the moment they meet (as do the others in the shop), but the lovebirds naturally need to be led kicking and screaming to that revelation. The fun is in their mildly embarrassing missteps along the way. In Jim Petosa’s sharply observed staging, there’s also significant amusement to be had in the antics of a shopful of deftly drawn subsidiary characters.
Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (who would write Fiddler on the Roof a year later) penned for She Loves Me one of the more delicate, operetta-ish scores of a decade otherwise devoted to brassier fare, and if Joe Masteroff (who later wrote the script for Cabaret) delivers only a serviceable script to go with their music, his work is still better crafted than most of what passes for librettos these days.
Rather than providing the showbiz flash and big-cast sizzle that was favored by most of their ’60s contemporaries, the three creators were intent on affectionately sending up the light-opera conventions of an earlier erathe oom-pah-pah of Friml waltzes, the lilt of Rombergian melody, the silly Bavarian stereotypes that made musicals of the teens and ’20s feel hopelessly dated by the middle of the 20th century. There’s music in the very air these characters breathe, and it gets incorporated into their sales techniques, their speech patterns, and the frenzied Christmas-shopping rush that has them whirling like figures in an overwound music box.
The employees of Mr. Maraczek’s parfumerie are so overflowing with melody that they sing customers out of the shop with refrains of “Thank you, please come again” that sound like easy-listening-radio jingles. And when the customers aren’t around, there’s still a story to be sung behind every perfume counter. A dim, affection-starved cashier (Sherri L. Edelen) will find love, a craven womanizer (Jeffries Thaiss) will get his comeuppance, a delivery boy (R. Scott Thompson) will prove he’s got what it takes to be promoted to clerk, and a determinedly unobtrusive employee (Daniel Felton) will make huge messes every time he turns around.
None of this is terribly surprising, but it’s gracefully managed at Olney, where the show is being presented for holiday consumption as if it were a platter of brightly wrapped bonbons. Vocally, the evening is pretty splendid, and it’s also more human and funny than a show that amounts to a series of sugary desserts has any right to be. Credit Petosa’s staging for concentrating on characterization more than on plot, and credit the cast for finding differently amusing ways to communicate bourgeois self-absorption.
Schmidt’s Georg is particularly fine, likeable even when he’s realized what Amalia hasn’t and is behaving as something of a cad. But everyone’s sharp, from Harry A. Winter as the parfumerie’s wistful but brusque proprietor to Doug Bowles as a waiter desperately trying to maintain a romantic atmosphere while his inept employees are dropping trays. CP