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NY Theater Reviews

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi/ Ph: Joan Marcus

PEN PALS

By BERNARD CARRAGHER

Scott Ellis' production is an excellent, enjoyable revival of a 60s musical.

She Loves Me is a perfect revival of a 1963 musical with a good story and fine songs and dances. When it first opened it was not a blockbuster, it was thought to be a pleasant and agreeable show, but over the years it has grown into one of great nostalgic popularity.
 
She Loves Me is a romantic musical about a boy and girl who fall in love via mail. It was written by Joe Masteroff in an operetta style without coyness, from Miklos Laszlo's 1937 Hungarian comedy Parfumerie. The play has been the basis of several popular films, the best of which is The Shop Around the Corner, still a gem, starring Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart.
 
Director Scott Ellis is familiar with the show since he has staged it before, and he guides the musical wisely, balancing it between sweet sentiment and jaunty comedy scenes. Ellis has assembled a cast of accomplished musical theater charmers. Laura Benanti plays the main role of Amalia Balash and is one of the few leading ladies on Broadway who can really sing. She also acts the role of a shy romantic who is being wooed and wooing. The hero of her letters is Zachary Levi, who plays the slightly pompous clerk, Georg Nowack. He sings pleasantly, and once the show's comedy gets moving he lights up the stage with some fun and humor.
 
Other prominent cast members are Jane Kraowski as Ilona Ritter, a pretty and wacky disillusioned salesgirl who briefly loses her heart to the scent shop's cad Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), who plays the role with false charm and probably could fool any lady under 30. Ladislay Sipos (Michael McGrath) looks like an affable, friendly shop worker but is one who is able to work things out at the store to his own interest and perspective.
 
What has always made She Loves Me appealing is its melodious score, with Jerry Bock's soaring music and Sheldon Harnick's infectious bright and witty lyrics. A few years before She Loves Me, Bock and Harnick won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiorello, and in 1964 Fiddler on the Roof opened, which is also being revived this season a couple blocks away at the Broadway Theatre. Listening to She Loves Me, you get the feeling that Bock and Harnick have written a score with affection and without strain, producing songs in the mood of another era.
 
Masteroff keeps his hero and heroine in combat much of the time before they finally find one another, which of course is customary in these kinds of musicals. Going through all these romantic trials, Benanti behaves with simple honesty and innocence as if she completely believed in this fable.
 
At the end of the first act, in the Cafe Imperiale, where she is supposed to meet Mr. Letter Writer, Benanti has one of her best moments. She has been sitting in the cafe for two hours waiting for the date to appear. By arrangement, she has a copy of Anna Karenina with a place marked with a rose. She has been harassed by Georg, who is too confused to let her know he is her letter man. He leaves, and she is alone to sing the exquisite song "Dear Friend," Benanti acts it and sings it very simply, very honestly and makes that moment touching and persuasive.
 
The fine dances by Warren Carlyle keep the show moving rhythmically. In the Cafe Imperial he stages a terrific tango number led by dancer Michael Fatica. David Rockwell's sets are full of colorful atmosphere, especially in Maracizek's Deco-decorated store. Jeff Mahishie's costumes catch the Budapest time periodm as does Donald Holder's lighting. Musical director Paul Gemignani's orchestra executes the show's beautiful score.
 
In a word, She Loves Me is simply enjoyable. There aren't many musical shows like that. It has been extended at the Roundabout's Studio 54 until mid-July.