THEATER REVIEW:She Loves Me at the Roundabout

She Loves MeStudio 54

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti — Love in a Disney-fied Budapest

I saw the Roundabout’s She Loves Me in mid-May and intended to write about it then, but there was too much else going on.  Now, I’ve had a chance to watch the HD stream as well, so here goes…

When I was theatre student, pretty much everybody referred to the genre I loved as “musical comedy.”

Even then, I objected. Surely, nobody thought Oklahoma! was a comedy — or Show Boat, or West Side Story?  The term fundamentally mischaracterized a lot of works.  More than that, I noticed how dismissively it was applied by my teachers and fellow students, who behaved as if musicals weren’t worthy of serious consideration.

Still, I had to grudgingly admit that I understood what they meant.  My actor friends talked all about subtext and emotional truth — aspects often lacking in musicals I saw.  But was the problem with the works themselves? Or was it that, too often, the emphasis by directors and performers was on keeping everything light and lively?

Thirty-plus years on, I’m happy to see that our language has changed. The term “musical comedy” has given way to the broader and less judgmental “musical theater” — certainly more apt for the works of Sondheim and others.

Yet watching the Roundabout’s production of She Loves Me, I felt immersed again in the debate.  The issue isn’t the work itself. Bock, Harnick and Masteroff’s 1963 show is a truly great, almost perfect musical. But though I might classify it as an operetta, to me it was never a “musical comedy.”

You don’t need to be an historian to know that the setting — Budapest in the mid-1930s — evokes a time of cultural instability and uncertainty (which would, of course, get worse before it got better).  You don’t need to be a brilliant reader of subtext to sense that the premise — two employees in a parfumerie, who unbeknownst to each other are lonely hearts correspondents — has an underlying fragility and poignance.

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Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi — Chemistry but no poignance

More than 20 years ago, in the first She Loves Me I ever saw, director Scott Ellis got a lot of this right. Now, he’s back in the driver’s seat for a production that is larger and more lavish. The full-size orchestra this time around is a definite plus.

As for the rest — not so much.

Lavishness is the last thing I’m looking for in She Loves Me. In fact, initially I resisted seeing this production — I didn’t like the promotional photos and video of the gorgeous but impossibly pristine, primary color-saturated Art Nouveau set.  This, I thought, is Budapest filtered through Walt Disney.

Seeing the show confirmed I was right to be wary.  The candy-coated exterior is, I’m sorry to say, mirrored in the rest of the show.  A stellar cast, who on paper seem nearly ideal, deliver crowd-pleasing but generally shallow performances. (Since this is true virtually across the board, I think the fault likely lies in the direction.)

Laura Benanti sings Amalia beautifully, if not quite with the soaring upper register that Barbara Cook brought to it.  But Benanti’s sardonic, contemporary line readings dilute Amalia’s awkward shyness, and her stunning physical glamour — dressed to the nines, she looks like Gene Tierney or Linda Darnell – is likewise wrong.  Zachary Levi (as George, Amalia’s correspondent) is immensely likeable — but why the silly grinning and giggling when he talks about his “Dear Friend”?

In addition to Levi, the most successful performances are by Byron Jennings (as Maraczek, who owns the parfumerie), and Tom McGowan (Sipos, a veteran clerk); the worst is Jane Krakowski, who recycles her Jenna Maroney mannerisms.  Apart from the debonair Jennings, not one member of the ensemble suggests any European-ness — this could be the cast of Babes in Arms, all grown up.

Watching the HD stream, I was struck again by the glory of the book and score, and had some new appreciation for the on-stage chemistry, particularly between Benanti and Levi. (It won’t surprise me if they are paired in a future TV series.) But my basic objections to the tone hadn’t diminished.

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Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski — Splits instead of sex

Here are a three specific examples (among many) where things run aground:

  • “Ilona,” a love song for the irresistible bad-boy character, Kodaly. The boyishly winning Gavin Creel delivers it as silkily as one could wish – but the allure of the song is undercut when it’s turned into a campy Apache dance, mostly an excuse for Jane Krakowski to do the splits (these, apparently, standing in for actual sexual chemistry).
  • The restaurant scene that closes the first act. It should be lovely and touching, but the spell is broken by Peter Bartlett’s outrageously fey, frame-breaking head waiter. Also, Benanti’s casual inflections in the verse to “Dear Friend” get mood-dissipating laughs.
  • Arpad, an eager-beaver delivery boy (played here with a grating level of perkiness by Nicholas Barasch) has his big moment in “Try Me,” where he tries to convince Maraczech to promote him to store clerk. It’s a tricky piece under any circumstances, because Maraczech is in a hospital bed, recovering from a suicide attempt. (Take that, “musical comedy.”)  Here, there’s no sense at all of fragility — Arpad literally jumps on the bed, while Maraczech smiles with avuncular amusement.

Of course, I’m happy for the existence of this HD version, the first ever to be live streamed — for many, it will serve as an introduction to a wonderful show, one that they are unlikely to see in another format.  It also preserves a more than reasonable facsimile of this Broadway production, for better and worse.  I urge you to judge for yourselves.

 

 

 

 

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