She Loves Me
8 February 2015
One of the great pleasures theatre offers is the chance to see performers breathe new, invigorating life into characters or set pieces which you think you know; to be genuinely surprised by a production of a show you know well is just as thrilling as being at the break-out performance of a star or the first run of a show that will become a classic or genre-defining. When a performer takes a secondary role by the throat and gives a perfectly judged, transformative interpretation, one that performers in subsequent productions will be measured by, thrilling is not a sufficient term. When it happens not in the West End or on Broadway, but in a modest Fringe venue, it is all the more extraordinary.
Now playing at the Landor Theatre is Robert McWhir's joyful and innovative revival of She Loves Me (Score, Jerry Bock, Lyrics, Sheldon Harnick, Book, Joe Masteroff) a gorgeous chamber musical which started life on Broadway in 1963 and was last revived professionally in the West End in 1994.
McWhir understands the limitations of the Landor intimately and is especially skilled at making the most of those limitations. This production of She Loves Me demonstrates his understanding and ability clearly and deftly; the limitations are used to assist the production not detract from it.
The gifted David Shields provides a delightful and charming set which is as adaptable and versatile as it is completely appropriate. The main set, Maraczek's Parfumerie, is exactly as it should be: pretty, old-fashioned and slightly exotic. Clever use of curtains transforms that space into the café where lovers meet for secret trysts and into the hospital where the elderly Mr Maraczek recuperates following an incident with a gun. Shields' costumes are also spot on, evoking the sense of the fun but fastidious Thirties effortlessly.
There is excellent musical direction from Iain Vince-Gatt who controls the musical side of proceedings from a keyboard, with the assistance of two gifted strings players. Robbie O'Reilly choreographs craftily and with verve: the ensemble routine at the Café is particularly vibrant and fun.
She Loves Me is a delicious confection; a sweet story of love and misunderstanding among the perfume bottles and face creams of a small family owned perfumery. Amalia and George have been writing love letters to each other for some time without knowing that it is to each other they are writing. She read his ad in the Personals section of the newspaper, thus the correspondence. They work together and don't get along at work. The moment comes when the letter writers decide to meet but things don't go according to plan. Along the way to realisation and fulfilment, there are the intertwined stories of Mr Maraczek and his unfaithful wife, the intrigue of the promiscuous and traitorous Kodaly, the woes of the heart-of-gold good time girl, Ilona, who just wants someone to love her, the fears of Ladislav, the clerk who doesn't want to be fired and the aspirations of Arpad, the delivery boy who wants to be taken seriously.
If it sounds vaguely familiar, that is because the story was the basis for the James Stewart film, The Shop Around The Corner, and the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks film, You've Got Mail. She Loves Me is better than either, not the least because the score is infectious and fun, the lyrics sharp and clever, and the story told in a beguiling and involving way.
The stand-out performance here comes from Joshua LeClair, whose Arpad is effervescent, energised, and totally convincing throughout. Everything LeClair does is finely judged, impeccably thought-through, full of heart and shimmering with talent. Each time he appears in a scene, he lifts proceedings. His voice is true and sweet and his acting honest and perfectly suited to the intimacy of the surroundings. His relationship with Ian Dring's Mr Maraczek is beautifully portrayed and he kicks Act Two off to a great start with an excellent rendition of Try Me.
Without ever doing anything to pull focus or grandstand, LeClair refashions Arpad into one of the cornerstones of the success of this revival. It's a winning, triumphant performance in every way – and LeClair is surely a talent to keep a lookout for.
Dring also does very fine work. His Maraczek is terrific, the perfect grumpy old man who likes his shop run his way but who secretly loves and admires his loyal staff. His work with LeClair is excellent, as is his work with both Charlotte Jaconelli's Amalia and John Sandberg's Georg. His apology to George is particularly well done.
McWhir has an inspired idea with Dring, doubling him as the Head Waiter at the café, a decision which permits Dring to let his hair down (well, don a silly wig at least) and have a gay old time as a camp, extrovert fussy door bitch. Dring takes the opportunity with both hands and wrings every ounce of supreme silliness from the opportunity: his sniffy Maître'd is very, very funny. The doubling shows off Dring's range as a performer and underlies the pathos in Mr Maraczek's journey. It's great stuff.
As the oily, duplicitous Kodaly, the cad with dashing good looks, Matthew Wellman needs to relax more, but is generally impressive. He has a good voice which he uses well and the right sort of on-stage style. He plays vain extremely well. As one of the objects of Wellman's affection, Emily Lynne's Ilona is kooky and sweet. She has a pleasant voice, but her support and projection need work; even in the small space that is the Landor she was frequently inaudible, especially in A Trip To The Library, a matter not down to an inappropriate balance between singer and orchestral accompaniment. Lynne seemed more at ease with the dialogue and snowed excellent comic instincts.
David Herzog, as the (very funny) clerk who fears he will be fired, Ladislav, is an egg-shell-walking delight. Always alert on the outside perimeter of the main action, Herzog makes Ladislav wry and observant, friend and counsellor among the perfume bottles. His comic timing is exact and he sings well. Perspective is delicious.
The role of Amalia is a gift: gorgeous songs, such as Dear Friend and Vanilla Ice Cream; gentle comedy and some will-they-won’t-they romance. It’s a dream role for a good Soprano. Charlotte Jaconelli is certainly a good soprano, with a voice that is rich and secure. At times Jaconelli was slightly too classical in her approach to the score (this is Bock not Beethoven) but mostly – and especially in Vanilla Ice Cream – she was an absolute joy to hear. Her acting was tentative, but sincere, and her Amalia was a completely rounded character. With a slightly more relaxed and open approach, Jaconelli will shine.
John Sandberg puts every effort into making Georg work. Georg is the pivotal role in the piece: the good guy who works hard and is hopelessly romantic. Sandberg needs both to imbue his performance with energy and to be more at ease in the role. He does not have the right vocal colour for the score, but he more than gets away with the singing. He is likeable and suitably doe-eyed, but a little too tightly strung.
It’s a difficult line that Jaconelli and Sandberg have to walk in She Loves Me: each has to be completely in love with the unseen recipient of their letters while at the same time, and despite themselves, fall in love with a person with whom they work and about whom they are not at all sure. Here, both performers have no trouble with the awkwardness and the offhandedness at the Perfume Shop, but each needs to work more at developing the ease and attraction that must exist in order to make their romance real and believable. Both are slightly too angst-ridden; their pacing slightly too slow. More trembling anticipation, and the pain that desperately wanted pleasure can bring, is needed from both. When they get that right, they will be securely in sync and the piece will blossom further.
The ensemble work hard and provide excellent vocal support, with Annie Horn and Tom Whalley standing out.
This is a fresh, warm and lively revival of a clever, gentle and intimate musical comedy. McWhir has matched the intimacy of the Landor space with the intimacy of the piece and Vince-Gatt ensures the score does not suffer, but sparkles. Genuine good fun.
She Loves Me runs at the Landor Theatre until 7 March 2015.