San Diego is full of classic holiday delights right now: A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, The Nutcracker, Messiah, and of course The Grinch. But, if you’ve seen them all and are looking for something new, may I suggest a drive to Orange County?
There, you’ll find Chance Theater nestled into a light industrial complex alongside the 91 freeway. Go inside, and you’ll experience a jewel of a rarity: a revival of the musical, She Loves Me, that is a musical theatre lover’s dream come true.
She Loves Me qualifies as a musical from what has been dubbed the Golden Age of Broadway. Written by Joe Masteroff (who would write the book for Cabaret) with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (whose Fiddler on the Roof was just on the horizon), She Loves Me opened in 1963 with a terrific pedigree: Harold Prince producing and directing, and a cast that included the incomparable Barbara Cook and Jack Cassidy. The production ran a respectable 301 performances and was nominated for a Best Musical Tony Award for 1964. But, there were two blockbuster hits that season: Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! Dolly won the Tony, and Carol Channing won for her portrayal of the title role. Barbara Cook wasn’t even nominated, and the consolation prize went to Jack Cassidy, who claimed a Tony for his featured role.
Now, why am I telling you all this? Because if you have stayed with me this far and find these details to be fascinating, then you are truly a musical theatre buff and a great candidate to drive 100 miles each way to see this show. For me, it was a “bucket list” item – and one that I was very grateful to fulfill with this particular production.
She Loves Me turns out to be a perfect holiday show for Orange County’s scrappiest theatre company. It is intimate, romantic, and while its narrative conventions may be straight out of 19th Century Jane Austen, it nevertheless charms. Why, you might ask, especially if you know the show? It’s set in Budapest between the world wars, in a culture that no longer seems relevant, and its score is quaint, at best. The best numbers (“Ice Cream,” the title song) don’t appear until the second act.
All that may be true, but She Loves Me is also a product of the early 1960s. It’s a story about clerks in a specialty store who ostensibly fall into “hate at first sight,” but who have, unbeknownst to each other, been corresponding anonymously through a Lonely Hearts Club. Even though the clerks are under the thumb of the store’s owner and are forced to bow and scrape to the customers (delightfully, I might add – I mean there’s even a little “Thank you, thank you, please call again, Madame” ditty that the staff sings as each customer exits), their middle class aspirations and support for one another reflect well the post-war rejection of class differences in the U. S.
The show is also a right size for the Chance stage (with some creativity involved – more in a minute), it can be done with mostly a piano (and, an onstage Roma violinist), and while it is set during various seasons, it culminates with a Christmas celebration.
Earlier, I called Chance “scrappy,” and I mean that label as a compliment. The company has gained enough of a reputation since its start (in a smaller space at the other end of the industrial complex) so that it now has a larger theatre (and, a second one to come this spring) and most importantly the company is able to draw on a pool of nearby talent with which it can create high-quality theatre on not-a-large budget.
The one problem with She Loves Me is that it requires several scenes with different set pieces. Scenic and costume designer Bruce Goodrich has solved that problem rather neatly, by creating a backdrop that puts us in what is clearly a European city, creating a set piece that can be opened and closed and rotated in various directions to provide enough context for most the scene locations. The one place where this strategy doesn’t work is in a scene set in a bedroom. Fortunately, that scene occurs following intermission, so the crew can set up a different unit and then quickly roll it off while the main unit rolls back on. It is certainly the most ingenious scenic design I’ve seen all year, and my compliments to Mr. Goodrich.
Director Sarah Figoten Wilson has a large (14 performers) cast to fit into a small space, and she does so without creating either traffic jams or clutter. Jonathan Daroca’s lighting design helps shape the traffic patterns by creating a variety of luminosities to fit the various locales. Taylor Stephenson’s crisp and well-blended musical direction was well executed by the company (Mr. Stephenson also took the role originally played by Jack Cassidy, an unctuous, oily chap – he underplayed the role a bit, and I would have opened up the oil spigot just a little more). There was not much opportunity for choreography, but Christopher M. Albrecht took good advantage of the little that existed.
Chance co-founder Erika C. Miller appears in the role Barbara Cook originated. She has a clear, bell-like soprano and found enough depth in Amalia, a smart, well-read, and somewhat combative store clerk, to make her tendency to disagree seem charming. Ms. Miller is paired with Stanton Kane Morales, as Georg. Mr. Morales certainly had the vocal depth required of the role, and he caught well Georg’s tendency toward priggishness. Neither of these characters are supposed to be ingénues, either female or male, and that’s refreshing.
As the other store clerks, Camryn Zelinger, Corky Loupe, and Daniel Jared Hersh each registered as distinct personalities with distinct stories to tell. Beach Vickers exhibited just the right mix of bluster and vulnerability as the hard-nosed but deluded store owner.
Chance has announced its 2015 season, and She Loves Me will be replaced by Anne of Green Gables as next December’s holiday show. While the company might bring it back in the future, now’s your chance. Pounce!