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Why ‘She Loves Me’ remains easy to love

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti in “She Loves Me.” (Joan Marcus)
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NEW YORK — Exuberance, thy musical name is “She Loves Me.”

The melodies of this 1963 show by Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick sound as sweet and richly evocative as ever in director Scott Ellis’s pleasurable new Broadway revival for the Roundabout Theatre Company that had its official opening Thursday night at Studio 54. The orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani and the cast led by Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi and Jane Krakowski prove to be scrupulous custodians of the luscious score, and none of them more polished than Benanti. Her Amalia Balash is a worthy successor to the role’s originator, Barbara Cook — and that includes her skill at hitting that gorgeous, high B-flat in the song “Vanilla Ice Cream.”

“She Loves Me” ran on Broadway for nine months in 1963 and ’64, and then didn’t appear there again for another 30 years, until Roundabout revived it in 1993 with Ellis directing and Judy Kuhn as Amalia. Despite its abundant wit and Old World warmth — it’s based on Miklos Laszlo’s play “Parfumerie,” which also became the 1940 movie “The Shop Around the Corner” — the show has never been a blockbuster. But that’s okay. It endures in discerning musical-comedy-loving hearts, in the memories of everyone who’s reveled in the seductive chords of Bock and Harnick’s “I Don’t Know His Name” or “Will He Like Me?” or “Dear Friend” or that effervescent title song, sung by the show’s hero, in the guise of Levi, aglow in the realization of his brightening romantic future.

If you don’t recognize the specialness of the imaginative achievement here, the exceptionally graceful integration of plot and song; the impressively equitable level of attention devoted to each of the characters’ stories, well, what can I say? The rest of us, we’ll always have Budapest.

That’s where “She Loves Me” takes place in the 1930s, and mostly in the perfume shop of Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings), an emporium that opens like a jewel box in set designer David Rockwell’s dazzling rendering of it, on the stage of Studio 54. Amalia and the chief sales clerk, Levi’s Georg Nowack, take a humorously instant dislike to each other, not knowing that they’ve long been writing rapturously to each other, as nameless lonelyhearts’ club correspondents.

Some divine performers support this central pair, most enjoyably, Krakowski as Ilona Ritter, a shopgirl too quick to fall for the likes of a two-timing co-worker like Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), and Nicholas Barasch, portraying Arpad, the shop’s eager-beaver delivery boy. Like all the other major characters, they’re generously given their own shining moments; Krakowski, in the clever, heartstring-tugging  “A Trip to the Library,” and Barasch, in the winningly self-promotional “Try Me.” Michael McGrath’s portrayal of the parfumerie’s sad sack, Ladislav Sipos, is persuasive, too, particularly when gets to lay out Sipos’s self-abnegating credo, in “Perspective.”

While Warren Carlyle’s choreography makes inspired use of the restricted shop space in numbers like “Twelve Days to Christmas,” the hyperactive shenanigans of the scene in the Cafe Imperiale — where Amalia’s correspondent is finally supposed to reveal himself  — are a disappointment. Much of the problem has to do with a miscast Peter Bartlett, who is usually a formidable comic presence but here as the fussy headwaiter hams it up way too energetically. As the scene also reveals, the chemistry between Benanti and Levi stops somewhere short of magnetic. Both actors deliver appealing performances, and yet, it’s in the triumphs of some of the other characters, such as Krakowski’s Ilona and Barasch’s Arpad, that the production comes up with its most affecting moments.

Still, Ellis, Carlyle, Rockwell and company succeed at much the same task as the harried employees of Mr. Maraczek’s store: wrapping up things in beautiful packages, to the delight of the excited customers.

She Loves Me, book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Scott Ellis. Choreography, Warren Carlyle; sets, David Rockwell; costumes Jeff Mahshie; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Jon Weston; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; music direction, Paul Gemignani. With Jim Walton, Alison Cimmet, Michael Fatica. About 2 1/2 hours. Tickets, $52-$147. Through June 12 at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. Visit roundabouttheatre.org or call 212-719-1300.

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