Sweet perfume

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday December 6, 2016
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Monique Hafen and Jeffrey Brian Adams play sparring work<br>colleagues who don't realize they are lonely-hearts pen pals in <i>She<br>Loves Me</i> at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica<br>Palopoli
Monique Hafen and Jeffrey Brian Adams play sparring work
colleagues who don't realize they are lonely-hearts pen pals in She
Loves Me
at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica
Palopoli

She Loves Me has no interest in blowing your socks off. It's happy enough to charm you without having to jettison hosiery. That charm carried it only so far when it opened on Broadway in 1963, but regard for this gentle musical has pushed it from cult favorite toward mainstream appreciation. Yet it's still a musical that may confound audiences at first as musical numbers come and ago without the hard sell that elicits big applause. But then the allure settles in as the authors' methods become clearer, and we relax into the ride through a gentle wonderland.

It is set in a place filled with delicate objects, taking place in a perfumery in 1937 Budapest, and the show itself must be treated with specific care. And so it is in director Susi Damilano's production for San Francisco Playhouse. This gift-wrapped production is set during the holidays, has the spirit of the holidays, but really isn't about the holidays at all.

The story has been retold in several famous film manifestations: The Shop Around the Corner in 1940, In the Good Old Summertime in 1949, and You've Got Mail in 1998. They all began with Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo's Parfumerie, which premiered in Budapest in 1938, the same year that Laszlo left for the United States in anticipation of bad times for Jews in Europe. Whatever storm clouds were gathering, this Budapest, and librettist Joe Masteroff's adaptation of it for She Loves Me, is presented as an idyllic place where the only stormy weather is romantic. Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott's storybook set reflects that as it opens and folds and rearranges itself into different locales.

If you've seen any of the story's incarnations, you know it is about work colleagues who detest each other while unknowingly carrying on an anonymous romance through the mail after connecting through lonely-hearts ads (or in an AOL chat room, in the most recent film retelling). The characters Amalia and Georg have to be likable, but believably unlikable to each other, and Monique Hafen and Jeffrey Brian Adams give us just that. There aren't a lot of "big" songs in composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick's score, but Hafen and Adams thoroughly deliver on their back-to-back showstoppers: Amalia's comic aria "Vanilla Ice Cream" and Georg's infectiously joyous "She Loves Me."

There are so many songs in the score that the original cast album was released as a rare two-disc set in the days of vinyl. Even after several encounters with the musical, I can still find myself thinking, Does this moment really require a song? But once the tune begins, there is a simple allure that captures a character's specificity and holds our interest. And again, the SF Playhouse cast zeroes in on these moments, from the adorable Nicholas J. Garland's pleas for a promotion in "Try Me," to succulent Nanci Zoppi's sexually infused "Trip to the Library," to Joe Estlack as an affably hapless salesclerk in his make-no-waves anthem "Perspective," and Michael Gene Sullivan's poignant moment in "Days Gone By" as an otherwise loveably cantankerous boss.

Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., suitably oleaginous as a lothario salesclerk, delivers a splendid sendoff number in "Grand Knowing You," which highlights Kimberly Richards' choreography. And likely in collaboration with Damilano, there is the feat of carefully choreographed chaos as increasingly frantic shoppers work their way down from "Twelve Days to Christmas." More atmospheric effervescence is provided in Abra Berman's costumes, Thomas J. Munn's lighting, and with a special ovation, to music director David Aaron Brown, who pulls rich sounds from the five-member band.

A world war may be coming, along with Nazi and Soviet occupations, but these characters aren't looking beyond their tidy little world. She Loves Me is a musical that makes you feel good, and we should all be allowed at least some spells of that, no matter how fretful the times.

 

She Loves Me will run at San Francisco Playhouse through Jan. 14. Tickets are $30-$125. Call (415) 677-9596 or go to sfplayhouse.org.