Among aficionados of the Broadway musical, "She Loves Me" has long been viewed as an underappreciated treasure.
The show eked out a nine-month run in 1963, despite a beguiling score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, a charming book by Joe Masteroff and a dream cast headed by Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey and the late Jack Cassidy. On the ledger books, it was inscribed as a flop, which tends to be the kiss of oblivion. Indeed, revivals have been few and far between.
Two factors, however, have kept its reputation tantalizingly alive: the double-record original cast album, now prized as a collector's item; and the re-emergence in the last five years of Cook, once musical comedy's leading inge'nue, as a mesmerizing cabaret performer. To hear her sing (on record or in person) "Vanilla Ice Cream," the distracted heroine's witty second-act soliloquy from "She Loves Me," is to develop an instant craving for the show itself.
Center Stage is obliging unwhetted appetites up to a point with a production that is sometimes delightful, although more often merely pleasant and occasionally downright leaden. On the whole, "She Loves Me" is a far more attractive piece than director Stan Wojewodski Jr. seems to want to let on. It's as if, fearing charges of frivolity, he had resolved to make his staging behave as soberly as possible. Regional theaters, when they go "commercial," can get cripplingly guilty notions in their heads.
The dark look and considered pace of the production counter the natural effervescence of the show, setting up a tension that lessens in the course of the evening, but never entirely disappears. It's a curious strain, since the material itself is so intrinsically disarming. Inspired by a 1937 Hungarian comedy (which, in turn, became the Ernst Lubitsch film "The Shop Around the Corner"), "She Loves Me" is concerned only with the romantic entanglements of the employes of Maraczek's Parfumerie in old Budapest, circa 1930.
Chief among them are Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack, who are constantly squabbling over the tubes of Mona Lisa skin cream and the flacons of Rose of Italy. About all they have in common, Georg observes, is that at one time they were both infants. "But I grew up," retorts Amalia. She prefers to focus her amorous fancies on the anonymous pen pal she knows only as "Dear Friend." So, for that matter, does Georg. Could it be that, unbeknownst to one another, they are actually exchanging love letters and are really destined for the final clinch?
The relationship is traced in a series of splendid songs, atingle with the kind of breathless emotions that simply won't stay put. Indeed, the score as a whole has a lively conversational flavor -- the characters are either talking to themselves or to one another -- and Harnick's lyrics are particularly clever at pointing out the contradictions fluttering about in their souls.
Diane Frantantoni, who recently won a Helen Hayes Award for her performance as Grizabella in "Cats," brings a lot of vivacity (and a vibrant soprano voice) to the role of Amalia. She's this production's not-so-secret weapon in the war against lassitude, and when she sings such numbers as "Will He Like Me?" or "Dear Friend," the tone brightens measurably. Unfortunately, Boyd Gaines' Georg is a wimp who doesn't perk up until the second act, when he acquits himself nicely with the expansive title tune. The rest of the cast is uneven, but there are enough engaging performers to keep the scales tipped in the show's favor, if Wojewodski weren't also throwing on additional weights.
Louisa Flaningam expertly plays the pretty, blond cashier, one step up from dumb, and her tale of "A Trip to the Library" is an appealingly dizzy account of love turning up in the darndest places. Stephen Bogardus oozes oil of snake as a self-infatuated heel who expects women to pitch themselves at his spit-polished shoes. Stephen Geoffreys, penny bright as the delivery boy whose greatest ambition in life is to clerk at Maraczek's, scores with "Try Me," and Wil Love presides with amusingly ruffled aplomb over the drunken customers and gypsy violinists at The Cafe Imperiale.
But all of them seem to be laboring unnecessarily under a production that is too turgid by half. Borrowing from the paintings of Oskar Kokoschka, Hugh Landwehr's sets and Pat Collins' lighting push Middle European elegance to the edge of nightmare. Jess Goldstein's costumes, almost colorful, look as if they're struggling to emerge from a cocoon.
"She Loves Me" takes the audience from a bright summer's morning to Christmas Eve, from the confusions of courtship to the flowering of love. It's a happy voyage on all accounts. So why does Center Stage feel obliged to intimate that maybe romance is a travail and Christmas a holiday to be avoided.
She Loves Me. Book by Joe Masteroff; music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Stan Wojewodski Jr.; sets, Hugh Landwehr; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Pat Collins; choreography, Marcia Milgrom Dodge. With James Gallery, Stephen Geoffreys, Louisa Flaningam, Stephen Bogardus, Boyd Gaines, Peter Johl, Diane Frantantoni. At Baltimore's Center Stage through Oct. 27.