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?