Thursday, May 22, 2008

You'll love She Loves Me

Nancy Carroll and company hoof up a storm in She Loves Me.

Yes, I know, that's about as corny as a headline can get. But it's true - you will love She Loves Me, at the Huntington through June 15 - and if you don't, my friend, there's something wrong with you.

Because there's nothing wrong with this show - it is, simply put, perfect; even if She Loves Me isn't quite "the perfect musical," as Time magazine once claimed, it's still pretty damn close, and frankly this is the perfect production of it. It's also Artistic Director Nicholas Martin's swan song, and he clearly wanted to go out on a high note - not only has the Huntington dropped a bundle on some splendid production values, but Martin has pulled together a sterling cast from his solid-gold rolodex, and deployed every clever insight and trick he has up his sleeve, on a show that I'm sure he knew was the perfect vehicle for his wit.

So the evening's lightly sophisticated magic should be no surprise - only shows like this always are a surprise, anyway; this is the kind of production that makes you recall with a faint shock how transporting a show can be, how rejuvenated and alive it can make you feel. That She Loves Me is really just a commercial entertainment only reminds you of the heights to which entertainment used to aspire: based on the legendary Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner (at left, itself based on the play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, and remade as the forgettable You've Got Mail), the musical's creators (Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick) honor their source with nearly the same level of craft Lerner and Loewe brought to Pygmalion. Masteroff cleverly re-spins the time-honored plot about smitten pen pals who rub each other the wrong way in real life, Bock's music elegantly recalls the play's Hungarian sources, and Harnick's lyrics are hilarious without ever stooping to an obvious joke (after enduring the braying juvenilia of The Producers, She Loves Me felt like a long, luxurious bath in the pleasures of adulthood). Add to that lineage Nicholas Martin and this smashing cast (led by Brooks Ashmanskas and Kate Baldwin), and you have a kind of timeline of craftsmanship that somehow transcends itself.

Indeed, I found myself scratching my head, searching for something not to like. Let's see - the second act isn't quite as seamlessly delightful as the first; there's one obvious gearshift in the dramatic mechanics, and at least one "extra" song. The musical also lacks, I suppose, a knockout stand-alone standard, but its "book songs" are so sophisticated and ravishing that you somehow forget all about that. And I thought one of Kate Baldwin's dresses (at left) was a little too pink. That's about it.

The rest is pure pleasure. Brooks Ashmankas obliterates any doubts over whether he's a romantic leading man with a performance that combines both his famously sharp physical comedy with a lightly-rendered vulnerability (his grab-it-and-shake-it-for-all-its-worth take on the title song is probably alone worth the price of admission). And Kate Baldwin - the best thing about last season's Three Musketeers - is both romantically luminous and smartly sharp as the object of his affections. The entire cast deserves awards, both individually and as an ensemble (indeed, their professional give-and-take almost defines ensemble). I might single out Jessica Stone's wide-eyed-yet-world-weary Ilona, or Dick Latessa's melancholy Mr. Maraczek, but could I really do that to Jeremy Beck, Mark Nelson, Troy Britton Johnson, or Marc Vietor, not to mention the talented chorus and dance ensemble (led by the infinitely flexible Jason Babinsky)? No, I couldn't.

Nor could I ignore Denis Jones's hearty, bemused choreography, Charlie Alterman's sparkling music direction, Kenneth Posner's and Philp Rosenberg's atmospheric lighting, or James Noone's subtly charming, ever-changing set design. And whose inspired idea was it to put the orchestra up above the stage, where we could see them? Oh, who cares? Doesn't everyone have a prize by now?

Still, in the end, this triumph's true begetter is Nicholas Martin, who, before he left us, not only brought a new sheen to the Huntington, but presided over the opening of a new theatre in the South End (which all but rejuvenated that neighborhood), and the creation of a major playwriting program, as well as one of the city's most extensive outreach efforts. Mr. Martin is one of the few local leaders who can truly say they changed Boston for the better. Indeed, his departure is the only melancholy note struck by She Loves Me: we love him, and what will we ever do without him?


  1. Well I suppose its official then... there's Something Wrong With Me. (But we knew that already, right?) Because I liked this production of She Loves Me, but didn't love it. And I really WANTED to love it- She Loves Me was the first musical I ever saw which captured my heart (in a great production directed by my late friend Ras) while I was still in undergrad and I've been looking forward to seeing it ever since the Huntington announced it a year ago. Outside of Gypsy or West Side Story it very nearly is the perfect musical- you'll get no argument from me there.

    But I felt very distant from the production now playing at the Huntington. It didn't get to me emotionally at all. I remarked at the intermission that I got a very cool sense of reserve from the whole thing, and that all of the polish and sparkle detracted from the story. I could have used a little more of the mundane in the show- a slightly more shabby shop, a female lead who actually was more of a Plain Jane, (as one acquaintance of mine commented, "A Lonely Hearts Club? Her?! Please!") and the sense that the characters in the show are really hungering for something. I also didn't like the set- there was way too much ping-ponging between side to side, and having the orchestra onstage (okay, up above) Encores style didn't do much for me. The whole set, as a result of these factors felt very downstage to me and I found myself wishing that the design took more advantage of the deep stage the Huntington has. I wasn’t one of those audience members who clapped when the set started revolving.

    I also, (and forgive me when I say this) don't buy Brooks Ashmankas as a romantic leading man at all. In fact, I'd go as far as to say he's miscast in the role of Georg and that the chemistry between him and Kate Baldwin is lacking and near non-existent. Sure, they said the words and sang the songs beautifully, but all he was projecting was a cute kind of puppy love. Don't get me wrong- he's a marvelous, winsome, charming performer but his sweet, stammering boyish nature would seem to serve him better as a girl's best friend then as her lover. It's easy for me having seen his bravura performance (with Teddy) in Present Laughter and now his lesser turn in She Loves Me why he's usually considered a supporting actor rather then a lead. This didn’t kill things for me- and as I said, he’s a gifted performer and almost pulls it off at times, but I still don’t feel he’s right for the role and it’s an uneasy fit at best.

    All that said, there's plenty to recommend about this production, and many of my objections have to do with personal taste. If it's sparkle, polish and sheen you want this show has it in spades- I could just do with less for a show that is supposed to take place among the working class lives of the lovelorn clerks in the show. The choreography is wonderful, (especially the café number) the orchestra was marvelous, the music was divine, Nancy Carroll (as always) shines in her ensemble part and, it's a Great Musical. I'll certainly recommend it to people I know who are looking for something to see; it's a very charming show and a fine production. But I, philistine that I am, didn't Love it

  2. Well, Dan, there is something wrong with you - although that "something" may simply be that you saw a production by a good friend (who passed away!) in college that you thought was really, really great, and this new professional one just doesn't seem to measure up to your memory. How many times have I heard that story? Too many times to count.

    Although,as usual, you bring up some good points. I actually agree with you about the "shabby shop" issue, even though I didn't discuss that in my review. I likewise wondered if perhaps the overall set design was almost too charming; given that the people in the show are routinely concerned about losing their jobs, a slightly greater sense of general economic privation was in order, although I don't think the actual shop was the place to show it. Rather, the "backstore" area, and particularly Amalia's apartment, would have ideally been slightly more threadbare. (This in fact would have been in keeping with the show's deeper theme of the contrast between romance and reality, and how adults deal with that gap.)

    But isn't that rather small potatoes? As in very, very small potatoes, so small they're not even tater tots? As for Brooks - sorry, can't agree with you, if only because his was one of the most charming musical comedy performances I've ever seen. Maybe he's not a romantically dashing leading man, but I disagree with you about your "puppy love" criticism; indeed, I adored his gleeful infatuation, particularly during the title song - it gave the material an appealing zing that Jimmy Stewart never brought to it. Although again, to tease out some fairly fine distinctions, I feel the play is no help on that particular point - nor is the movie; there's just not enough material in the source regarding their transition into romance (indeed, the musical may have actually managed this issue more cleverly than the film). Your point about "chemistry" I think is likewise mistaken, as for most of the play the point is that Amalia and Georg LACK chemistry in the real world - indeed, they only actually connect at the very last minute. Ditto your friend's point about Kate Baldwin being too pretty for a Lonely Hearts Club - "Oh, please!" right back atcha; haven't we been asked for most of Western history to believe that handsome, charming actors are having trouble getting dates? Yes, we have. It's a bit late to start carping about it now.

    At any rate, I'm curious as to what local productions you might field as superior to She Loves Me. I know you were stunned by Sweeney Todd when the tour came through last fall - but surely, for instance, you can see that the Sweeney in that production was quite weak, and we all just sort of ignored that. The Drowsy Chaperone was a wonderful time, and featured a cast to rival that of She Loves Me, but in the end, the music and lyrics come nowhere close. You could make the claim that the tour of My Fair Lady was stronger - of course it's a stronger show, and it had very good leads; but wasn't the choreography kind of disappointing, and wasn't the pacing a bit slow? I guess in the end my feeling is that your criticisms, even where I agree, aren't really worth a hill of beans. What's startling about She Loves Me is how strong it is in every department - you might quibble with the set, or with Brooks's stage presence, but it's undeniable that all you're doing is quibbling, and that both are successful. And really, it's hard to think of any show like that since - well probably since Nicky Martin's last one, Present Laughter.

  3. Touché - a hit, a very palpable hit. You'll note, Tom, that nowhere do I say this "She Loves Me" isn't a good production. In fact, I go out of my way to praise it while still calling attention to what I think are the weaker links; if I'm a tough critic then it's out of love not malice and I think I manage to make my points without being condescending whether you agree with them or not. Much as during our little go-around about the ASP Tempest I liked the show- I just don't happen to like it as much as you. I'd suggest that if perhaps my criticisms don't qualify as tater tots then maybe they would make the grade as home fries. But that's not really the point in what I wrote- I was simply trying to give voice to the what and why of my personal reaction to the show. And I'm not comparing this production to the one I saw while still an impressionable undergrad- that was very small scale and had plenty of weak points, more in fact then this one if we were to balance the scales out between them. The fact remains however that this show didn't get me emotionally and my response was an attempt to suss out the why.

    As far as what I've seen that is better locally, if you strictly mean locally produced (and I'd argue that the Huntington only sort of counts as a local producer) there isn't much in that category. Precious little. You've pretty much got me there- it's one of the better things that I've seen in town this season and deserves much praise- in that category it might even qualify as the best. (I'd note here that I haven't seen about half the stuff you have- didn't get to History Boys, the BTW Angels, Dessa Rose, etc. On the other hand, I've seen a bunch of shows you haven't either.) But before you crow in triumph, just remember that it's hard to compare a behemoth of a company like the Huntington to anybody else because of the scale and scope of their productions. This show is going to Williamstown next, and from there, well, if it pops up a year from now out at the Taper in LA or even gets a New York run I don't think anybody is going to be surprised. Comparing a show like this to the national tours that come by (as you seem to be doing) strikes me as much more fair, and in that vein, yes I thought both Sweeney Todd and the Drowsy Chaperone despite some of their own weaknesses were better then this production. They certainly resonated more with me, and I'd probably add the tour of The Light in the Piazza to that category also. Running in NYC at the moment I'd take Passing Strange over it anytime with no questions asked. And I've certainly seen locally produced shows that I *personally* enjoyed more that weren't necessarily "better" productions- I had a better time, for example at 'Whizzin but that probably has as much to do with my love of the Gold Dust Orphans go-for-broke intensity and glamorously dirt cheap aesthetic then anything, but you can't compare the two as they are like apples and oranges.

    As for the little matter of the lead, with a lesser company producing a show like this, the mis-casting of someone like Ashmankas would probably sink it- but he's got so much talent that it almost (note the emphasis on almost) doesn't matter. Given that he's really a supporting player casting him for the lead is interesting in the least and almost daring, but I still don't think it totally worked. Isn't the point of chemistry between a couple that we can feel and see it even before it's apparent? That's certainly how it always seemed to work in those old MGM movies! I never got that from Baldwin and Ashmankas- not even for a moment. There's no spark between them. Again, I know you're not going to agree with me on this point, but for me little details like that add up. Bottom line? I liked it. Just not as much as you, and I don't think it's nearly as perfect a production as you do.

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  5. mitchell said...
    I was privileged enough to have been taken to the old Imperial theatre in Manhattan to see "She Loves Me" when i was 12, in 1963, beginning a lifelong affair with Barbara Cook. I also saw the Scott Ellis 1993 revival in its transfer to london, not once but twice, in August of 94 and January of 95, with the estimable Ruthie Henshall and the absolutely brilliant, charming, funny John Gordon Sinclair, best known for the 1981 sleeper film "Gregory's girl." Admittedly at 57 I have idealized the memory of the original production with the late Jack Cassidy, Barbara Baxley and Daniel Massey in it, but my memories are quite lucid about the London revival, and while this cast may not be quite as illustrious, the Huntington production is very nearly its equal, with some wonderful characterizations and glorious singing. I found it tender and moving as well, and while the first few scenes had me slightly baffled by the casting of
    Brooks Ashmankas in a romantic lead, he grew on me rapidly and quite won me over. Theatre, at its most primitive, is about illusion -- Kate Baldwin mightn't have looked like a plain, lonely-hearts kind of girl, but she acted it to perfection and she made us believe. So did her leading man convince us that he was desirable despite his less than matinee idol appearance. I enjoyed the show enormously after a lifetime of quite rampant theatre-going,and would recommend it to anyone. I can't say I agree with comments about the set design -- while not as inventive as the 94 production, it worked for me, and Marazcek's is
    supposed to be a successful shop,
    not a down at heels parfumerie.