Hungarian playwright Miklós László wrote Parfumerie in the 1930s. Not only did it become the most widely known of his plays but inspired the 1940 motion picture The Shop Around the Corner, the 1949 musical film In the Good Old Summertime starring Judy Garland, and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, with a cast led by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
Parfumerie was also the source material for She Loves Me, first staged in 1963. A romantic comedy with a book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, She Loves Me received a major Broadway revival in 2016 that starred Laura Benanti and picked up eight Tony Award nominations. Led by first-time director Erin James, She Loves Me arrived at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co last week.
Set in Budapest in 1934, She Loves Me invites us into Maraczek’s Parfumerie, owned by Zoltan Maraczek (Tony Llewellyn-Jones). One of the store’s employees is introverted assistant manager Georg Nowack (Rowan Witt). He’s been exchanging letters for some time with a woman he knows only as ‘Dear Friend’. The woman to whom he is writing is actually Amalia Balash (Caitlin Berry) and it transpires that she begins working at Maraczek’s Parfumerie herself. It takes some time for Georg and Amalia to learn that they’re exchanging affectionate letters and, in the meantime, a tense relationship builds between the co-workers, each developing unfavourable perceptions of the other.
Under James’ strong direction, She Loves Me is an absolute delight. This light and breezy feel-good musical has an eloquent book, a melodious and mellisonant score, and it’s presented here in a first-class production that ensures one leaves the theatre completely satisfied. Sometimes, pure escapism just can’t be beat, and this production is a splendid reminder of that. It’s a joy to experience from the gorgeously sung and staged opening, ‘Good Morning, Good Day’, right up until the finish.
Fresh off his Helpmann Award-winning run as Elder McKinley in the Australian premiere season of The Book of Mormon, Witt is well cast as the articulate but somewhat anxious Georg. His Act II performance of the show’s title track on its own attests to Witt’s wonderful talent. Berry’s beautiful soprano is a tremendous asset to the production, particularly shining as she performs one of the piece’s best known numbers, ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’. She is excellent as the intelligent young woman who similarly lacks self-assuredness, and she has a great chemistry with Witt.
Industry stalwart Tony Llewellyn-Jones takes on the role of Maraczek, adeptly portraying the paternal store owner. Zoe Gertz is superb as the sparkling and spicy saleswoman, Ilona Ritter, and Kurt Phelan not only showcases glimpses of his incredible talent as a dancer but convinces as slimy cad Stephen Kodaly. Joel Granger is hugely likeable as Arpad Laszlo, the eager and amiable delivery boy, while Suzanne Steele and Georgina Walker are fine additions to the cast, assuming the guise of a number of store customers.
But it’s Jay James Moody who brings us arguably the production’s most entertaining moments. He gives a terrific performance as Ladislav Sipos, another restless employee of the store, but he’s an undeniable scene-stealer as the maître d of the Cafe Imperiale, a meeting place for lovers looking to carry on “discrete” affairs. His remarkable comedic skills are fundamental in ‘A Romantic Atmosphere’ being one of the best performed and staged moments of James’ production.
In saying that, James’ interpretation of the entire piece in the intimate Hayes Theatre is impressive. It’s tightly blocked and totally polished and feels distinctly like a ‘big’ show in a small space. And just as Alexander Berlage did so for Cry-Baby last month, James has opted to raise the height of the stage. It’s a winning decision that improves sightlines for those in the first few rows, ensuring they don’t miss any of Leslie Bell’s intricate choreography, which includes ballroom dance content.
Production Designer Isabel Hudson, having already created two of the best sets we’ve seen at the Hayes, brings us a strikingly detailed representation of Maraczek’s Parfumerie, which is so successful in locating us that you can almost smell its sweet scents. Performers are generously costumed while Matt Cox’s lighting choices successfully complement the onstage design elements. And led by musical director Steven Kreamer, a six-piece band tightly delivers Bock’s score.
This year in Sydney, we’ve had the good fortune to experience a number of shows – musical and otherwise – that have spoken to dangerous political undercurrents, to grave injustices that continue to occur and to daily struggles with which we grapple. But with its slight story of romance ignited by a letter exchange, She Loves Me affords the perfect opportunity to escape the world for a short time and enjoy a fine piece of theatrical entertainment. You may not leave the venue deep in thought, but you might just be floating on air.
SHE LOVES ME – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 22 September, 2018
Times: Mon 6.30pm | Tues – Sat 7.30pm | Wed & Sat 2.00pm
Price: Tickets $60.00-$75.00
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337