Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

She Loves Me

Book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, based on a play by Miklos Laszlo
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
(2011)

She Loves Me production photo

The opening production for the Festival Summer Season is She Loves Me, a delightfully romantic musical comedy with more lives than the proverbial cat. Beginning as the play Parfumerie by the Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, it was re-born in 1940 as a film The Shop Around the Corner, and in 1949 became the musical In the Good Old Summer Time starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson, before popping up again in 1998 as the rom-com You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Technology might have changed the method of communication along the way but the basic theme remains constant. Young shop assistant Georg (a very likeable Joe McFadden) meets new girl Amalia (sweetly pretty but determined Dianne Pilkington) and they take an instant dislike to each other, totally unaware that they have been for some time exchanging anonymous romantic letters. It is a foregone conclusion, of course, but the journey to realisation and romance provides an evening of joyous entertainment without in the least becoming mawkishly sentimental.

Choreographer Stephen Mear is also directing for the first time and has concentrated particularly on this aspect. There is not a great deal of dance in the show, although musical numbers are almost non-stop, each one relevant and driving the narrative along, while superb orchestration and real-time stereo sound is produced by Phil Bateman’s eight piece orchestra on balconies either side of the stage. Dance, when it does come, is of course superb.

Mear has taken the story back to its roots in the 1930s and the Hungarian Parfumerie where it first began, and Anthony Ward has fashioned an exquisite floor to ceiling shop front with shimmering coloured glass perfume bottles to attract and delight the customers - the whole neatly reversing from outside to inside as we are introduced to the characters arriving for work, although the show really achieves “lift off’’ when the scene changes to The Cafe Imperiale where the two ‘‘Dear Friends’’ arrange to meet for the first time. Here we have tango dancers (Zak Nemorin and Brenda Jane Newhouse) with Lee Ormsby as an excellent louche Head Waiter, desperately and comically trying to retain ‘a romantic atmosphere’ for his establishment while the two letter writers argue at full volume. The whole scene could have been a show-stopper if it hadn’t been swiftly followed by the interval.

Another potential, and hilarious, show-stopper occurs back in the Parfumerie and “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, with the frantic shoppers increasing in panic as the days count down.

Characters are expertly drawn and very credible, from Matthew Goodgame’s Clark Gable look-and-act-alike Steven Kodaly, to the well-meaning clerk Ladislav Sipos (Steve Elias) and the ambitious delivery boy Arpad Laszlo (Gavin McCluskey), while the two romantic correspondents interact with delightful charm, Pilkington’s silvery soprano soaring through the theatre. Who would have thought that salty vanilla ice-cream could have such restorative properties?

The star performance of the evening though belongs to the understated comedy of Annette McLaughlin, her sales clerk Ilona Ritter finding love at last during “A Trip to the Library”.

She Loves Me is a little gem of a musical, which first premiered on Broadway in 1963 and has scored again as a great start to the summer festival.

Until Saturday, 18th June 2011

Reviewer: Sheila Connor