With superb choreography and dynamite casting, She Loves Me at Artistry is a tribute to a musical that was never quite the hit it wanted to be. She Loves Me is based off of the play Parfumeire (1937), which inspired the James Stewart/Margaret Sullavan movie Shop Around the Corner (1940) and, later, You’ve Got Mail (1998). These many incarnations point to the evergreen premise of She Loves Me; in our current culture of online profiles and social media optimization, the lonely hearts club pen pals Amalia Balash (Sarah DeYong) and Georg Nowack’s (Ryan London Levin) search for love and acceptance resonates. She Loves Me is a classic romantic comedy, full of mistaken identity, secrets, forgiveness, and love. Georg works in a perfumery owned by Zoltan Maraczek (T. Mychael Rambo) along with other clerks: the beautiful but romantically hapless Ilona Ritter (Gracie Anderson), the caddish, smooth talking Steven Kodaly (Benjamin Dutcher), the hardworking Ladislav Sipos (C Ryan Shipley), and their eager-to-please delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (Michael Conroy).
Written in 1963 by Joe Masteroff with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (who, one year later would premiere together Fiddler on the Roof), She Loves Me doesn’t have any truly breakaway songs. Instead, it is a strong ensemble piece that gives triple threats ample room to work and many chances to shine. Fortunately for Artistry, director Benjamin McGovern has done a marvelous job casting this production. The comedic chemistry in this group is electric and their timbres are very well-matched. Nearly every character has a solo(ish) song, and it is the excellent performances from relatively minor characters keep this musical (which is nearly 3 hours including intermission) from feeling too needlessly long.
DeYong and Levin play well off of one another – their bickering runs the gamut from playful to caustic, but their body language always indicates the interest the audience has been taught to expect. The reason Amalia and Georg argue at work is that they are being their true selves there -- Amalia is a bit pushy, Georg is brisk. Both worry that their pen pal will be disappointed when they finally meet in person. Both worry about their looks, their normalcy, and if anyone could actually love them. DeYong’s operatic range is impressive, and She Loves Me is quite the vehicle for it. Levin is a bit more subdued, but plays Georg with an earnest caring necessary to make the part, as written, make sense. Georg’s actions in act 2 have never made much sense to me, but I suppose most musicals need an act 2.
The love lives of most of the characters form the backbone of the musical. Mr. Maraczek waxes fondly of his time as a bachelor, but all of his words about and to his wife demonstrate his deep love for her. T. Mychael Rambo is such a good choice for Mr. Maraczek – Rambo plays him as a larger-than-life showman, someone with a booming voice and a laugh, whose ire is just as contagious as his mirth. Arpad is a younger version of Maraczek – someone who loves the store itself and wants to be part of its history. While Ladislav’s home life is never fully explicated, C Ryan Shipley does a great job imparting more feeling into the toadie clerk whose one life maxim is to “never lose one’s job.” Shipley’s mannerisms, slightly wrong fitting suit, and fatherly glasses are just perfect. Ilona and Steven have been engaging in a very long courtship which Steven is unwilling to advance to the next level. Between Dutcher’s singing and Anderson’s antics, as well as the superb choreography, the song Ilona was easily my favorite. Dutcher plays Steven as a remorseless and sly cad, who is nevertheless not quite as smooth as he thinks he is. Anderson’s Ilona is worldly and a bit melodramatic, but you still feel sorry for her and hope that she finds someone to love her properly.
A favorite with Artistry for a reason, Wendy Short-Hays’ choreography works well with the music, and she is quite funny in a bit part as the Headwaiter of a (dubiously) romantic restaurant. Her choreography, along with ensemble performances from Deidre Cochran, Christian B. Labissoniere and Elizabeth Cassidy, breathe life into the world of the store. Playing patrons and townspeople, the ensemble manages some very tight costume changes and make the store feel like a prestigious and important hub. Rick Polenek's set and Katie Philips' properties function incredibly well, and do a good job of showing the passage from inside to outside, and cleverly swing to one side of the stage or the other when he needs to show an additional room. However, this needful invention is one of the ways that She Loves Me feels more like a movie than a play. Artistry has dealt with the cumbersome scenic changes well, but it feels like another round of tightening the script would have worked wonders for some of the more abrupt scene changes.
During this rather unbearable Minnesota cold spell, She Loves Me is guaranteed to warm hearts (if not hands and feet). On until February 17, it is absolutely worth a short drive to Bloomington!