SHE LOVES ME is one of the best pre-Sondheim American musicals. It came at a fallow time for Broadway musical comedy. Jerry Herman's overblown HELLO, DOLLY was the reigning hit with its camp heroine and big production numbers. SHE LOVES ME is a small, scale musical with little dancing and not much of a chorus. What it does have is one of the best scores (Jerry Bock) of any American musical, so much music that it filled two lps on the first original cast album. The songs are character driven in the manner we associate with later Sondheim musicals 1963, the year SHE LOVES ME opened, was also the year A FUNNY THING ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM appeared at the Alvin Theare four blocks north. The lyrics by Sheldon Harnick perfectly fit the characters who sing them. Joe Masterhoff's book, an adaptation of the film, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and the Hungarian play on which it is based, is economical (the songs do most of the work) but well-crafted. It's a gem of a show. It wasn't a hit on its first outing despite a starry cast (Barbara Cook, Barbara Baxley, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy) and a lovely production by Hal Prince, one of the first shows he directed as well as produced.
The characters all work in a Budapest parfumerie before World War II. There is a battling couple who really are in love with each other; a vain, caddish ladies man and his sometime lover, a Hungarian Ado Annie; the owner who realizes his best days are past, an eager young delivery boy and a paragon of common sense. The songs turn these types into characters one cares about.
Older-time show buffs like me know the original cast album well. It is difficult not to hear Barbara Cook's beautifully sung "Dear Friend" or her almost hysterical discovery of love in "Ice Cream" while watching any production of SHE LOVES ME. Nor can ayone who saw the original forget Jack Cassidy's hilarious ladies man. For those of us who know and love the show, every revival can't help but be compared to the original. There was a Broadway and London revival that was quite good (John Gordon Sinclair and Ruthie Henshall in London). Now there is this new production at the Chichester Theatre Festival directed by Stephen Mears. Wisely, the festival has put this intimate show in its smaller theatre.
Mears is an excellent choreographer, but SHE LOVES ME isn't a dance show. In the first act, he seems to want to choreograph the numbers in a way that simply doesn't fit the characters. As a result, moments scream "musical!" when they should be more character-driven. He lets up in the second act (perhaps he ran out of time). The cast is good to very good. The strongest are Steve Elias as the cautious family man, Sipos, and Annette McLaughlin as the illiterate, man hungry Ilona Ritter. They inhabit their characters most fully. The two leads are a mixed bag. Joe McFadden is charming, but too nice. McFadden seems to want the audience to like him at moments he should not be likeable. He has a sweet little singing voice, a size or two too small for the title song, but he tends to "perform" his numbers rather than act them. Perhaps a director with more experience working with actors would have helped him. Dianne Pilkington in the Barbara Cook role suffers from not being Barbara Cook. Her soprano voice is edgy and wobbly at times. She also suffers from lack of direction. I remember that Amalia's song that ends the first act, "Dear Friend" was heartbreaking when Barbara Cook sang it. Here Pinkington's first choice is to make the song comic, then get more serious. The song just didn't have the emotional force it should have had.
Anthony Ward's black and white sets were beautiful.
I enjoyed this production because I love the show. However, there's a richer show there than Stephen Mears and his cast presented.
SHE LOVES ME. Minerva Theatre at the Chichester Theatre Festival. June 18, 2011.