Review: “She Loves Me” at San Francisco Playhouse

She Loves Me, the 1963 Bock and Harnick romantic musical comedy, has always gotten the short end of the stick, historically. Nobody who has ever seen it thinks its less than a miniature work of musical comedy gold, but the original production—which was directed by the great Harold Prince and starred the legendary Barbara Cook—ran less than a year. Since then, the only major New York revivals have been noncommercial productions that lasted less than half a year each. Thankfully, San Francisco has been gifted with a wonderful production of this wonderful musical, and you should not miss your chance to see She Loves Me while its at the San Francisco Playhouse.

The story concerns a parfumerie in Budapest in the 1930s and the lives of its employees over the course of several months. The aforementioned employees include Georg Nowack, a young and optimistic romantic looking for love; Ladislav Sipos, an economically-conscious and highly servile doormat; Steven Kodaly, a suavely intoxicating yet untrustworthy schemer; Ilona Ritter, a fun and likable but lonely girl and sometimes lover of Mr. Kodaly; Amalia Bolish, a plucky and headstrong clerk who’s new to the shop; and finally the gruff-but lovable owner Mr. Maraczeck.

The show is variously interested in different characters at different points as it moves aimlessly-yet-amiably through the winter months, but at its center is a love story of the highest quality. The plot of this romance, originally devised by Miklós László (who wrote Parfumerie, the play that She Loves Me is based on), however, is of such ingenious construction that I don’t want to spoil the way that it reveals itself to an audience. So intelligently nailed together is it, that no less than three separate hollywood films have used its device as the center of its plot (The Shop Around the Corner, with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in 1940, In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland in 1949, and You’ve Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in 1998).

What makes She Love Me click so well is the sterling silver score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who would, a year later, write the score to Fiddler on the Roof. From the opening chord to the closing note, the score is pure ambrosia. It is one of a dozen or so scores written in the classic Broadway mode that approaches perfection.

San Francisco Playhouse has staged a production of She Loves Me that highlights its considerable qualities, with a great ensemble cast and a lovely physical production. As soon as the Playhouse announced that they would be doing this show, I knew immediately that Jeffrey Brian Adams would be Mr. Nowack. He is, and he’s predictably great in the part. His vintage charm, sterling singing voice, and natural ease onstage make him ideal as the young romantic lead, and his singing of the title song is a display of sheer ebullience unmatched this year onstage. The rest of the ensemble cast gives a variety of very fine performances, each with their own unique rhythms and a sense of creating a lived-in character. Standing out among the cast is Monique Haffen as Amalia, playing the character much softer than is typical, which allows for a great slight-of-hand trick to be pulled on the audience as she slowly accumulate finesse in the second act, as well as Katrina Lauren McGraw, who shines as bright as the main cast in her ensemble role.

It is here, however, that I shall fail to properly describe one specific element of this production, that being Nanci Zoppi, who plays Ilona. I can tell you that she has absolutely perfect comic timing, a great atypical singing voice, and a physical gusto that will knock your socks off. But I can’t really convey to you the enormous sense of joy that she brings to the show every second she is on stage. It is as if she carries within her a spotlight that cannot be turned off. Her performance as Ilona is such a perfect whirlwind of eros and joy that looking anywhere else while she is onstage is a feat that no human would be able to accomplish. Her rendition of “A Trip to the Library” is among the best things I’ve ever seen onstage.

There are more excellent elements to speak of in this production, such as Bill English’s vintage-postcard set, but not much more needs to be said than that She Loves Me is an absolutely wonderful night out. In such seemingly dark times, it’s the kind of show that might just be necessary to remind you of optimism and hope, just in time for Christmas.

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