She Loves Me is not the first incarnation of the story
of prospective lovers who quarrel in person but are amorous in
their anonymous letters, nor will it be the last (another film
rendering opens this winter). The St. Bart's Players have mounted
a handsome production which does justice to much of this irresistibly
sweet story (book by Joe Masteroff) and its delectable music (by
Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick).
While the production is well-staged and moves smoothly, the actors seem to have been directed (by Christian Staint-Gerard) to overemphasize much of their action. This could be extremely effective -- the Headwaiter's (Jerry Williams) rendition of "Romantic Atmosphere" was a standout, and it suited Kodaly's (Matt Levine) overinflated ego -- but other characters suffered from this approach. In addition, most of the musical numbers were staged with the performers facing front, and specially lit, but separating the music from the action in this way was something of a distraction.
Overanimating the characters also had the effect of making them seem two-dimensional. The hero Georg is undoubtedly an earnest and straightforward character, and though Joe Nielson was an appealing performer, he was needlessly busy, and furrowed his brow more than warranted to get the point across. Merrill Vaughn as the heroine, Amalia, had a vibrant soprano, but the role did not seem to be a good fit - her actions were larger than the part seemed to need, and she appeared more mature than her ingenuousness indicated.
More successful were Victor Van Etten as Sipos and Michael Connolly as Arpad, who were better able to navigate the overplaying and naturalness that are demanded simultaneously in musical comedy. Most successful at this was Nicole Sutterfield as Ilona. Her sly side glances showed that the character was not as simple as she seemed, but Sutterfield clearly conveyed Ilona's hopefulness about finding love while she repeatedly discovers her ineptitude at it. Her irritation at herself in "I Resolve" and her joy at discovering an intelligent man ("A Trip to the Library") were terrifically acted, and very well sung.
Each character in She Loves Me is given his or her own song, and the results here were mixed. Van Etten gave a persuasive argument for tact and diplomacy in "Perspective," and Connolly opened the second act exuberantly with "Try Me." Ulises Giberga gave Maraczek's bittersweet "Days Gone By" a bit of a music-hall turn, and Levine, in Kodaly's "Grand Knowing You," was high on panache but lower on charm.
The scenery (scenic design by Carlos Doria) was well designed to switch back and forth between the interior and exterior of the parfumerie where the cast spends its days. Crystal Thompson's costumes were also very good, from Ilona's garishness to Amalia's more conservative look, to outfitting the ensemble as shoppers and cafe patrons. Special praise also to conductor/pianist Julie Rowe and her orchestra of six. Their limited numbers did not limit the music.
For above all is that music. As Amalia sings about the cafe where she waits to meet her "dear friend," it is "charming and seductive" indeed.
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Copyright 1998 David Mackler