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Ingénues, leading men, and quickstepping chorus lines are all very useful, but pity the poor musical comedy that doesn’t keep a J. Fred Shiffman in reserve for its second act. After bouncy opening numbers have done their expositional work, and lovers have trilled a romantic ballad or two, there’s generally a lot of time to fill before the final curtain. True love can’t be rushed, but complications often aren’t all that complicated in light-hearted genre entertainments, so keeping things crackling past intermission can be tricky.
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In the decades since he first appeared on D.C. stages with a cabaret act called Red Shoes Walkin’, Shiffman has almost always provided plenty of crackle. There’s something about that long nose he’s forever looking down, and the sway of his slender shoulders when he’s striding away in triumph, and the adenoidal obsequiousness he affects when he simply must possess something he doesn’t have, that marks him as a stage creature of more than passing interest. Even when his characters keep one foot in the real world—his oily closeted Nazi in Cabaret, say, or his confused hero in Falsettoland—there’s a whiff of greasepaint about them. And set him loose to do comic embroidering that’s less tethered to character than to situation, and he becomes a clown of the sort who once inhabited vaudeville.
It’s that clowning Shiffman that Kyle Donnelly’s staging of She Loves Me harnesses to get its second act off to a roaring start. The plot—borrowed from Miklós Lászlós Parfumerie, turned by Hollywood into The Shop Around the Corner—has by that time reached the point where feuding perfume-shop clerks Georg and Amalia must go on a blind date and discover that they’ve been writing lonely hearts letters not to strangers but to each other. Shiffman plays the supercilious, long-suffering head waiter at the restaurant they’ve chosen for their rendezvous; he has just one song—a tango about how his establishment struggles to preserve “A Romantic Atmosphere”—and as somersaulting waiters and clattering dishes deny his every word, he employs an array of withering glances, trembling rages, and stealth-bomb pauses to uproarious effect. Nor does all this comically inflated hauteur in any way diminish his ability to seem delicacy itself a few moments later while offering comfort to a lonely heart whose date hasn’t showed up.
I don’t mean to suggest, incidentally, that Shiffman is the evening’s only attraction. Brynn O’Malley’s ice-cream-loving Amalia and Kevin Kraft’s forthright Georg are as attractive and as expressively full-voiced as anyone might wish of a leading lady and her lad. Clifton Guterman’s fresh-faced delivery boy, Jim Corti’s expansively timid clerk, Nancy Lemenager’s easily seduced cashier, Sebastian La Cause’s full-of-himself ladies’ man, and Hal Robinson’s blustery shop owner round out the staff at Maraczek’s Parfumerie entirely pleasantly. And designer Kate Edmunds has created a jewel-box of a shop for them to inhabit, with glittering glass display cases that pop up as needed from a floor painted to resemble a gigantic Victorian postcard emblazoned with a stage-filling rose bouquet.
All of which serves a show that’s far longer on charm than on musical pizazz. Some 44 years after it opened on Broadway, She Loves Me remains tuneful, amusing, and determinedly mild—a pleasant little bonbon crafted by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick between their Pulitzer-winning Fiorello! and their megahit Fiddler on the Roof. You could call She Loves Me the best-crafted musical of a year in which the competition wasn’t tough (also-rans in 1963 included Tovarich, Hot Spot, Here’s Love, and The Girl Who Came to Supper).
Still, if the show will never be a powerhouse (it opens with a song about the weather and concludes with a rousing number about Christmas shopping), it can be gussied up nicely, and Arena’s staging—from Nancy Schertler’s shimmering lighting effects to the sounds coaxed from an out-of-sight pit band by conductor William Foster McDaniel—is in all respects a handsome one. Call it a fine holiday attraction for mom and dad and Aunt Tillie, and possibly for you, too, if you’re fond of waltzes, delicacy, and good taste.