Serious admirers of musical comedy should move promptly to secure seats for the San Diego Musical Theatre production of She Loves Me, a deluxe revival of an under-appreciated minor masterpiece.
It’s a stunningly generous presentation in the intimate Horton Grand Theatre downtown, with a large cast, a nearly full orchestra, loads of period décor and, most important of all, a stage director and music director who know precisely what they’re doing.
And, in these cynical days of flawed superheroes battling vicious brutes, aren’t we all ready for a break? For a worldly but sweet love story of self-respecting grownups yearning to do the right thing? With music that warms and comforts like a gourmet breakfast?
Look no further. In the late 1930s, playwright Miklos Laszlo brought with him from Hungary an endearing script titled Parfumerie, about a perfume shop in Budapest where ordinary lives roiled and romance bloomed. It became the 1940 hit film “The Shop Around the Corner,” with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as the quarreling clerks who also, unknown to each other, were lonely-hearts correspondents.
Nine years later, Judy Garland and Van Johnson were “In the Good Old Summertime” film adaptation. The third movie – so far – entered the Internet Era in 1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail.”
And, in 1963, producer/director Harold Prince brought the great Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey to Broadway in She Loves Me, with a score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (already starting work on Fiddler on the Roof) and yet another adaptation of Parfumerie by Joe Masteroff.
There are those of us who consider this musical among the best works of 20th Century American art. Its charms are obvious immediately but the classic qualities of the script and score apparently never stop growing, even 57 (!) years later. (OK. Just one example of a lyric: Dumped by yet another seducer, a well-travelled sweetie resolves, “I must stop thinking with my skin!” Just try to forget that image.)
But the words and music are safely in print, on record and available forever. Not so the other sublime element of the original, Hal Prince’s staging, which floated the show forever into so many hearts and minds. And that brings us back to the present, and the stage of the Horton Grand Theatre.
It’s a rare privilege to find a director’s work as effective as the job Richard Israel has done here. The minor flaws – a bit of mugging, a prop that doesn’t quite work, an emphasis rushed – are of no consequence whatever when the show is considered as a whole. Israel’s timing is both solid and exquisite. His actors, even the ones not quite cast ideally, have that ease of belief that goes with inspired leadership. His balance between period authenticity and contemporary tastes is shrewd and marvelous. And his decisions inevitably work, well enough but usually much better than might be expected.
Something similar is going on up in the rafters, where Horton Grand Theatre orchestras must perch. There, Don LeMaster presides over a band of a dozen or so which, I must admit, sounds to me just fine. The original orchestrations by Don Walker, clever and advanced for the time, are clearly the default for whoever pulled together this version and my own quibbles are limited to two: Not enough accordion and no onstage gypsy fiddler for the big dance scene. Otherwise, all is terrific. The balance is better than expected, the tempos are well chosen and crisp, the ensemble singing is near spectacular and the priceless timing of the accelerando (gradually increasing tempo) lives right on the edge of breathless.
The cast seems to glow with pride. Allison Spratt Pearce, a willowy brunette with an urgent vibration and useful vocal range, convinces readily as the romantic new clerk while Joshua David Cavanaugh overdoes the starchy propriety as her suitor but prevails with his sincerity.
Sami Nye moves seductively and sings accurately as the shop cashier, though more precise diction would fully sell her best contributions. David Sasik is perhaps too oily as the libertine clerk, though he delivers – falsetto and all – when he senses a grand exit.
Jeffrey Arnold Wolf as the shop owner has a more emphatic character arc than anybody else and he drives it onward, most of the time, with an appealing side of wry. Steven Freitas as the meekest of clerks is exactly as cautious and marginal as necessary and likewise in the brash department for Lucas Blankenhorn as the up-growing delivery boy.
The score needs a sextet of female customers capable of multiple looks and choral discipline. Here, though reduced to just three, they deliver with aplomb. Cassie Bleher, Alexa Querin and Morgan Carberry are their names and I’m sure the show would go on nicely if any of them had to step into the roles they are understudying.
There also are five extra actors for bit parts but they lack the precise discipline of the ladies, perhaps because choreographer Lauren Haughton has staged the big nightclub number more like a college pep squad routine than a smoky dive. The energy is great but the subtleties have fled in panic.
Scenic designer Mike Buckley’s colors are delicious and his solutions ingenious, though the many locations really need more stage machinery and levels. Michelle Miles’ lighting misses a great opportunity in that nightclub but the rest is fine. And Janet Pitcher’s endless parade of period costume is most impressive.
After carping about the details that holds this show back a very few clicks from perfection, it’s still a welcome duty to report that the package is in fact a real treasure. When classics get such careful and loving care, attention must be paid.
If San Diego Musical Theatre can maintain this level of quality, then I encourage them to move another step in noble theatrical archeology. Schedule 1776. Consider Follies and Aspects of Love. Maybe Pacific Overtures, No Strings or even Fanny.
Believe me, I don’t make such suggestions to just everybody.
(Continues at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Sundays through March 7, 2020.)