Bobby Smith, how we’ve missed you. Seeing the stalwart musical man alongside fabulous company in Signature’s She Loves Me (★★★★☆) is but one of many pleasures to behold in director Matthew Gardiner’s sprightly, delightful trip to that fabled shop around the corner.
Miklós László’s 1937 play Parfumerie first established the venerable love story between contentious Hungarian shop clerks Georg and Amalia, spinning a romantic confection so sweet, it’s been revived, adapted, and reinvented in forms from film to this beloved musical-comedy, originally produced on Broadway in 1963.
The snappy book by Joe Masteroff has held up well, and, while the waltzing score, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, can seem a tad old-fashioned, the songs shine like gems when placed in their most advantageous setting.
Gardiner and company have done plenty to create that proper atmosphere, starting with Lee Savage’s set, which opens like a music box to reveal the pristine, pastel-pretty shop floor of Maraczek’s Parfumerie.
Reconfiguring like some happy-go-lucky Transformer around a centerstage turntable, the set impresses while offering Gardiner and choreographer Kelly Crandall D’Amboise myriad opportunities to keep the actors and decor moving in amusing directions.
Adam Honoré’s lighting design doesn’t always add as helpfully to the scenery, but contributes beautifully to standout numbers like “A Romantic Atmosphere” and “Dear Friend.” It’s the performances, though, that light up every scene.
Ali Ewoldt’s demure yet daring Amalia Balash bubbles with charm and nervous energy, unaware she’s engaged in a pen-pal romance with the one man she leasts gets along with in real life, fellow parfumerie clerk Georg Nowack, played a hint too gruffly by Deven Kolluri.
The pair sing wonderfully, solo and in tandem, but the show’s most successful duet belongs to Ewoldt and Maria Rizzo, as brassy clerk Ilona Ritter, more experienced with men if not necessarily love, than Amalia.
Their alternately humorous and heart-tugging “I Don’t Know His Name” showcases the production’s delicate balance between cynicism and romance, also captured in Smith’s touching turn as elder shop clerk Ladislav Sipos.
Simply happy to hang onto his job, Sipos gets a chance with his worldly-wise solo “Perspective” to reveal facets hidden behind his humbly, acquiescent manner, and Smith delivers with a take that inspires deeper contemplation of the man’s life, dreams, and losses.
Where Smith plays the drama more subtly, Rizzo and Jake Loewenthal, as randy shop clerk Steven Kodaly, do well by going big with their comic inflections, and hitting beats of background business with cool aplomb. The Ritter and Kodaly pairing offers a spicy counter to the blooming ardor of unwitting sweethearts Amalia and Georg.
In that central romance, it’s Ewoldt’s endearingly invested Amalia, for the most part, who carries our hopes that love will find a way for these two lonely hearts entangled in a mess of mistaken identities.
At a certain point, Georg could easily untangle the web of confusion, and wipe away Amalia’s doubts with a simple explanation. Choosing not to do that, he should be convincingly inhibited by his own shyness and insecurity from freely speaking the truth. Otherwise, he’s just a heel for letting Amalia suffer in ignorance.
It’s a fine line, and Kolluri doesn’t exactly find the right side of it, yet he forges a compelling figure of Georg as an upwardly mobile potential successor to shop owner Maraczek, well-played by Lawrence Redmond. This Georg might be more passionate about his job than his woman.
Whereas Amalia vividly expresses her passions for romance, for fashion, for reading, for her dear anonymous pen pal, and, judging by the glorious high note Ewoldt nails in fan-favorite number “Vanilla Ice Cream,” for a nice frozen treat — especially if it’s a thoughtful gift from the man she loves.
She Loves Me runs through April 24 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. with a Pride Night performance on March 25. Tickets are $35 to $105. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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