REVIEW: ‘She Loves Me’ at Signature Theatre is a welcome concoction of confection and charm
It’s impossible not to be swept away by this endearing musical revival
Leave your worries behind you and step into the world of musical comedy with “She Loves Me,” now playing at Signature Theatre. In this stunning revival, director Matthew Gardiner mounts a delightful escape from reality that you truly won’t want to miss.
Even before the play begins, attendees are greeted by a colossal Hungarian storefront parfumerie straight out of the 1930s, expertly crafted by scenic designer Lee Savage. As the orchestra swells into an amalgam of horns and strings during the overture, the parfumerie opens up like a music box, revealing a dazzling world of color and light. The hours that follow feel like a transportation far away from the fears of war, inflation and the pandemic.
“She Loves Me” is the 1963 melt-your-heart musical written by Joe Masteroff, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, with the latter two being the musical geniuses behind the masterful “Fiddler on the Roof.” The music throughout “She Loves Me” is breezy, melodic and fun. It’s impossible not to enjoy yourself while listening to a score this playful.
The story centers around the colorful employees of Maraczek’s Parfumerie, the premier destination for ladies cosmetics in the bustling city of Budapest. There’s the brassy Ilona Ritter, played with comedic gusto by Maria Rizzo, who keeps entangling herself with the worst kind of men; there’s Ladislav Sipos, the anxious husband and father who desperately needs to keep his job, played by veteran charmer Bobby Smith; and then there’s Georg Nowack, a hopeless romantic who would prefer to be seen as anything but, played by the handsome and crooning Deven Kolluri.
The employees go about their daily shifts charming guests, raking in sales and airing their personal grievances. Their boss, Mr. Maraczek, played with equal doses of intimidation and fatherliness by Lawrence Redmond, knows the goldmine he has in the store and expects nothing but the best from his off-kilter staff. But the careful professional balance of the parfumerie is thrown into disarray upon the arrival of Amalia Balash, a small but clever woman who needs a job, but would rather be searching for true requited love.
Amalia is played by Ali Ewoldt, who gives one of the finest vocal performances one could hope to find in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region. Ewoldt, a true soprano, displays impeccable vocal control throughout her performance, bringing nuance and confidence to every song. Her stellar vocal work is matched by carefully curated character choices that render her Amalia vibrantly, breathtakingly alive.
The plot thickens as Amalia and Georg lock horns in that unique way that only two people who stumble upon an unforeseen mutual attraction can do to one another. They bicker and prod, and Ewoldt and Kolluri present this playful resentment between their characters to hilarious effects. But what neither of them knows is that they both have been writing love letters to anonymous sweethearts as they attempt to fill the void deep within their hearts.
You can probably guess where this story is headed from there, but the journey toward the expected is filled with many beautiful and side splitting surprises.
One of the greatest strengths of “She Loves Me” is that every character is given their moment in the spotlight. It is a true ensemble piece, and Gardiner is an expert at creating a sense of community from his actors. In “Romantic Atmosphere,” a surly headwaiter and his clumsy busboy sing and dance their way through a number about setting the right romantic mood. However, the song itself is a laugh factory of chaos, and as performed by David Schlumpf and Daniel Powers, it proves to be the show's most raucous musical feast. In this number, as well as “Twelve Days to Christmas,” Gardiner showcases his skill of creating memorable visual pictures from his cast.
While comparing “She Loves Me” with his exceptional winter production of “Rent” – two musicals that could not be more different – it is clear that Gardiner is one of the most versatile directors working in the American theater today.
But it’s the back-to-back 11 o’clock numbers of “Vanilla Ice Cream” and the titular “She Loves Me” that provide 10 minutes of pure musical bliss. In these two numbers, Amalia and Georg express their revelations in finding and accepting love, and Ewoldt and Kolluri deliver swoon-worthy renditions that are sure to melt even the iciest of hearts.
In the program notes, Gardiner and Managing Director Maggie Boland state, “Stories such as this one have offered immense comfort, especially during darker periods of history.” This statement could not be more true and it is reassuring to know that nearly 60 years later, “She Loves Me” continues to function as a societal salve. In the hands of Gardiner and the consistently impressive Signature Theatre, this deliriously sweet musical has more than cuteness up its sleeve: it’s infused with inspiration and heart.