The Perfect Musical
Monday, Dec. 5. Twenty days to Christmas, twenty days to Christmas, plenty of time to do our Christmas shopping. Thus, many of us instead went to the Roundabout’s staged reading of that 1963 musical, She Loves Me.
At the Sondheim Theatre, a 17-piece orchestra sat behind six music stands that each had a triangular patch of draping underneath. These swatches made each stand resemble a cocktail glass -- fitting, for She Loves Me is one of Broadway’s most elegant cocktails.
The Joe Masteroff-Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick masterpiece was the first musical of the 24 that Roundabout tackled, so artistic director Todd Haimes came out before the show and talked about the 20 years that the company has now been ensconced on Broadway. Twenty years is about the time span that She Loves Me deserves to run on Broadway and everywhere else. But it never does. Only the cognoscenti seem to realize that this is one of the all-too-few perfect musicals.
The overture began, and we were reminded of a time when strings were prominently featured in orchestras. Andrea Martin’s character in My Favorite Year came down hard on accordion players, but one is needed and cherished here.
We even applauded the chorus as it came on – and you know you have a good chorus if the estimable Jim Walton is part of it. More applause greeted delivery boy Arpad (Rory O’Malley) and clerks Sipos (Michael McGrath), Ilona (Jane Krakowski), Kodaly (Gavin Creel) and Georg (Josh Radnor). Soon we were inside the perfume shop in which they work for benign despot Mr. Maraczek (Victor Garber).
“Sounds While Selling,” in which the clerks interact with three customers, reminded us that Harnick is not only a great wordsmith, but also one capable of innovation. Most every other lyricist would have simply written a list song with clever rhymes for various soaps and beauty products. Harnick instead came up with the inspired notion of splitting the conversation among three clerks and their customers so that we’d get some non-sequiturs and extra jokes: “I would like an eyebrow … under my … chin.”
The next to enter was not a customer, but job applicant Amalia (Kelli O’Hara). She arrived at the wrong time, just after Maraczek and Georg had bet about the likelihood of a musical cigarette box’s being sold. (Ever notice that some great musicals involve bets? Guys and Dolls. My Fair Lady. She Loves Me.)
Amalia makes the sale and Georg a loser. It’s hate at first sight, which is a problem, given that they’ve been mail-order lovers and have been writing romantic letters to each other without having met. Radnor was endearing in the way he kvelled when he read Sipos his secret love’s opening words, “Dear Friend.”
Actually, Radnor was endearing throughout, which is all the more impressive when one considers that he’s never done a Broadway musical and was cavorting with castmates who have aggregately done 63. Yet Radnor was as accomplished as any of them, with endearing yet strong leading man qualities and a most pleasant baritone.
Radnor was there to help, too, when McGrath, filling a big box with smaller ones during his excellent “Perspective,” dropped a little one. The actor effortlessly picked it up and -- in the same motion – tossed it into the big box and landed it perfectly. An NBA star couldn’t have done better.
Yes, Radnor blew The Red and the Black joke when he didn’t realize the next line was his. Once he did, he got right back into character and delivered Georg’s lines about sympathizing with Anna Karenina’s plight. No wonder O’Hara had Amalia see Georg in a new and more attractive light.
From Victor Garber’s paper tiger of a boss all the way to each chorus member, they were all sensational. This was not one of those one-night concert readings that seems terribly under-rehearsed and ultimately humiliating. Oh, sometimes the orchestra was a little ahead or behind, but not too often.
Conductor Paul Gemignani did miss one cue, through no real fault of his own: when Kodaly opened the musical candy box and Gemignani was to alert the musician who’d play the tinkly melody, he was blocked by the actors from his perch upstage and couldn’t see precisely when the box opened. Creel amused us by shaking the box a bit to “make it work” and by then, Gemignani was on the job.
Otherwise, director Scott Ellis’ presentation was sure-handed. When all the clerks sang “Thank You, Madam” to their departing customers, each performer gave his hand-over-breast gesture at the same time. Zach in A Chorus Line couldn’t have asked for better coordination.
And the Bock and Harnick score? It’s a little like the voice of God. Bock’s melody soars near the end of “I Don’t Know His Name.” He gave the ideal middle-European feel in songs as disparate as Maraczek’s “Days Gone By” and Amalia’s “Dear Friend.” Alas, given that this was a celebration of Roundabout, we had to expect that Ellis would tragically drop “Tango Tragique” as he did in his celebrated 1993 revival. He did.
That still left 23 glorious songs. Has any score been more generous in giving each of its four leads a showstopper in the second act? What can match Amalia’s “Ice Cream,” Georg’s title song, Ilona’s “A Trip to the Library” and Kodaly’s “Grand Knowing You”? So many shows catch that famous theatrical disease called second-act trouble. She Loves Me only gets better as it goes along.
And how well the cast sang those songs! O’Hara fed us her delicious “Ice Cream” and, at the end, surged in passion and showed a thrilling coloratura trill. Suddenly I was thinking of Lady in the Dark, where Danny Kaye killed with “Tchaikovsky” and Gertrude Lawrence had to follow him. How could Radnor top what O’Hara did, especially because “She Loves Me” is “only” a song as opposed to “Ice Cream’s” one-person musical scene? But just as Lawrence came through with “The Saga of Jenny,” Radnor did spectacularly by the title song, much more than anyone could have suspected.
Ditto Krakowski and Creel. When Krakowski told us about her new love Paul, she seemed to verbally caress his name. At the end of a smashing “Grand Knowing You,” Creel snapped his cane under his arm with the skill of someone who’s used a walking stick all his life.
And let’s not forget O’Malley, who starts the second act with the ultimate job interview song, “Try Me.” To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca, “We all try; O’Malley succeeded.”
Granted, there were a few semi-vulgar moments that Ellis ordered or condoned. During “Ilona,” when Kodaly was being seductive, he held out a knife at crotch level to suggest an erection. But Krakowski excelled in her body language during the song, unaware that she was dancing a few steps with him. She caught herself and stopped just in time. And during “I Resolve,” was it Krakowski or Ilona who was so rattled that when she put on a glove, she slid it up the wrong hand?
Less offensive but arguably wrong were the moments in the restaurant scene when female customers baldly came on to a male waiter with verve that seemed excessive for 1934. Peter Bartlett played the headwaiter in a fashion that may have struck many as over-the-top, but he kept getting hand after hand whenever he exited.
The reading also reminded us that Masteroff wrote a brilliant book. Notice that when Amalia applies for the job, she says that she’s had “five years’ experience,” before amending that with “five years and eight months.” Now we immediately know that she’s honest. Most job applicants would have rounded it off to six years (or 10) to aggrandize themselves, but not our Amalia.
When Amalia tells off Georg in the café scene, she judges him as “very sure of himself,” but “I see him 10 years from now selling shampoo” because she knows “what he is.” Amalia is so nice that even in anger, she chooses to say “he” instead of “you.” It hurts a little less that way.
What I love most about Masteroff’s book is that most of the time it has its characters being nice to each other. Georg, Amalia, Ilona, Sipos and Arpad take genuine pride in their work and they’re loyal to Mr. Maraczek, about whom they genuinely care. And we care about them. How empathetic Ilona is when advising Amalia in “I Don’t Know His Name,” and how well they bond by the song’s final line: “What’s in a name?” (That She Loves Me cites Shakespeare is apt, for it originally opened on April 23 – the Bard’s birthday.)
Even after Georg has been fired by Maraczek (over a misunderstanding), all he has to do is hear that his old boss has had an accident and is hospitalized; Georg forgives Maraczek everything and goes to visit him. Best of all, by show’s end, not only do Georg and Amalia get what they want, but also Ilona and Arpad do, too.
And yet, She Loves Me has been mystifyingly commercially unsuccessful twice in New York and twice in London. Ah, well; I learned long ago in my long life that nice guys do indeed often finish last. Guess nice shows do, too.
But not on Monday night.
— Peter Filichia