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Few surprises, great ride

Villanova Theatre presents She Loves Me’

In
4 minute read
Ilona and Amalia take their (very) sweet time musing about life and love. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)
Ilona and Amalia take their (very) sweet time musing about life and love. (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)

Villanova Theatre's revival of the delightfully old-fashioned 1963 musical She Loves Me not only shares meaningful themes but shows how the simplest stories endure.

The charming romantic comedy by Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music), and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) is based on Hungarian playwright Miklós László's 1937 play Parfumerie, which inspired three film adaptations: The Shop Around the Corner (1940), In the Good Old Summertime (a 1949 musical), and the 1998 hit You've Got Mail.

This prolific history proves the story's popularity, which might seem mystifying when considering its predictability. In the opening scenes of director Matthew Decker's fine production, we learn bachelor Georg (Ethan Mitchell) has long corresponded with a woman he knows only as "Dear Friend." He doesn't know where she lives or what she looks like — they send their letters to post-office boxes — but he's in love.

When Amalia (Mina Kawahara) arrives at the shop where Georg works, seeking a job, we quickly learn she is "Dear Friend." However, Amalia and Georg instantly loathe each other. How will this end?

No spoilers possible

The answer, of course, is obvious and inevitable, though Georg and Amalia are the last to know. Much of the joy in She Loves Me is their meandering journey toward each other.

Their written courtship is leisurely, but the slow pace of its progress allows their fantasies to grow. "I know exactly what he looks like — inside," Amalia comments about her pen pal. Today, romance (and all interactions) only know two speeds: fast and faster.

The musical's subplots examine romance from several points of view. Ilona (Tina Lynch) loves Steven (Jerald Bennett), but to him, she's one of many conquests. Georg's boss Maraczek (Paul Weagraff) counsels him to "find yourself one person to dance with," but has his own romantic problems.

Even the talented chorus reveals romance's chaotic nature. Decker and choreographer Rachel Camp create little stories between couples in many superbly staged shop scenes. Their dynamic realization of "A Romantic Atmosphere" even slips in some same-sex couples for a frenetic, complex dance about breaking from inhibitions, while a dour waiter (Barry Brait) insists that a romantic atmosphere requires quiet dignity.

All's fair in love and in 'She Loves Me.' (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)
All's fair in love and in 'She Loves Me.' (Photo by Paola Nogueras.)

The show’s successful direction is even more of an achievement considering Villanova's challenging audience-on-three-sides stage requires more three-dimensional staging and choreography than proscenium stages.

Love always

It might surprise some that this predictable tale plays a full three hours, but the production's charms make time soar. Music director Peter A. Hilliard's orchestra, hidden behind Colin McIlvain's set designed for quick graceful changes, drives the action. Alison Roberts's period costumes define characters. Jerold R. Forsyth's lighting — also challenging for a musical in Villanova's configuration — is delightfully busy and colorful.

Decker ensures that the performances, mostly by graduate students with professional experience, are specific and sincere. Of course, all acting requires this, no matter how glib or superficial the material seems at first.

Big numbers, like the full-cast complexity of "Twelve Days to Christmas," are well staged and acted, but so are intimate moments. She Loves Me is a musical best enjoyed in a small theater space like Villanova's.

Most of the songs are solos or duets, with which the cast excels. Ilona's "A Trip to the Library," sung to Sipos (Gabe Henninger), is performed sitting at a table, but Lynch tells its story with comedic brilliance, with Henninger as sympathetic listener.

Kawahara's Amalia and Mitchell's Georg prove over and over that less is more, and aren't afraid to reveal childlike enthusiasm, innocence, and awkwardness; when Kawahara hangs her head upside down off a bed for the climactic ending of "Vanilla Ice Cream," Mitchell skips giddily through the title song.

She Loves Me is so uniquely relaxed — yet never dull — that after the couple realize they belong together, two weeks and several songs pass before they finally unite. Along the way, we see Amalia and Ilona rejecting typical submissive female behavior and men becomin more understanding and respectful of women — or facing dire consequences.

Though romance isn't easy, we learn, love eventually triumphs. Even if we already knew that, it's great fun to see it triumph again in such an engaging way.

What, When, Where

She Loves Me. Book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, music by Jerry Bock, based on a play by Miklós László, Matthew Decker directed. Through November 18, 2018, at Villanova University's Vasey Hall, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, Pennsylvania. (610) 519-7474 or villanovatheatre.org.

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