To be honest, I was not completely sure about seeing a musical in the tiny Reginald Vaughn Theatre (formerly the Frontier, which is still the name above the door). I mean, the picture above is literally the entire stage! But, oh what a masterful job director Danny Kapinos and Blank Theatre have done with Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnik, and Joe Masteroff’s witty and very entertaining romantic comedy She Loves Me. Blank has provided exactly what this 1934 musical set in Budapest needs in order to work in such a small space: a clever director and choreographer (Tori James) to find ways of continuously reinventing the postage stamp-sized space and a cast of supremely talented performers who inhabit it and make it come alive.
She Loves Me is essentially a chamber musical anyway, less dependent upon huge expansive scenes and more focused on the small, intimate moments with its characters. (Not that Kapinos and James don’t have great fun staging full-cast sequences that belie the theatre’s intimate scale.) From the opening number in which the workers in a parfumerie wish each other “Good Morning, Good Day” through to the final moments when the Christmas rush—what a phenomenal bit of staging that is!—gives way to a private moment between lovers, this production is full of lovely, sweet surprises.
Austin Winter and Brandi Miller star as Georg Novak and Amalia Balash, clerks at Maraczek’s Parfumerie, an upper class shop where ladies come to buy soaps, scents, creams, and what-have-you, and where the clerks are so obsequiously responsive that they literally line up with a “thank you and come back soon” harmony for each client. Georg is the head clerk, but we meet him in a confusing time: for some reason he cannot fathom, Maraczek (Mike Weaver) is suddenly all over his case, treating him poorly and berating him constantly. When prospective clerk Balash comes in seeking employment, Georg takes his frustrations out on her, and what could have been a “meet cute” becomes the starting point for an “enemies to lovers” arc that is telegraphed from the start as we learn that the two are actually each other’s correspondents in a Lonely Hearts Club, where they know each other only as “Dear Friend.”
Both Winter and Miller are very likable performers. Georg may be irritable, but he does have cause, and Winter makes sure that we see his sweet, hopeful side whenever he is talking about his pen pal, as he does in a the nervous-but-expectant number “Tonight at Eight,” when he informs his friends about his plan to finally meet “Dear Friend” in person after work at a cafe. Meanwhile, Amalia’s cup runneth over: she tells her work friend Ilona (Rachel Guth, who practically steals the show every time she’s in focus) about how she has utterly fallen in love with this man even though, as she sings, “I Don’t Know His Name.” Miller’s performance is full of innocent faith and the joy of knowing something wonderful is coming. Amalia’s inner glow is only momentarily extinguished whenever she crosses paths with Georg, who seems perpetually angry with her, but returns the second he is gone.
Guth’s Ilona is the center of the most significant subplot here, and it’s all about this thirty-something illiterate woman’s desire to find a husband and settle down. At the start, the object of her affection is undeserving of it—Kodaly (pronounced “Ko-DIE” and played by Korey White), a smarmy cad who also clerks at Maraczek’s and has a history of breaking dates—but it doesn’t take long before she resolves never to let him fool her again. Her second act story of finding love in (ironically) a library is one of the show’s quietly humorous highlights, as is Miller’s lovely rendition of the sweet “Vanilla Ice Cream.”
One of the joys of this play is that every character, no matter how minor, is allowed a moment to shine. Maraczek waxes eloquent about the glory days of his youth in “Days Gone By.” Kodaly turns on the phony charm in a song called “Ilona,” and if you don’t hate him after it’s over you just aren’t paying attention. Co-worker Sipos (Aaron Mann) reminds George that, no matter how difficult Maraczek is making his life, he needs to keep it in “Perspective.” The store’s delivery boy, Arpad (an exuberant Bryce Ancil) gets to brag on himself as he asks the boss to “Try Me” as a clerk. Even a character who appears in only a single scene, the head waiter at the cafe in which Amalia waits for her “Dear Friend,” is afforded a highlight-reel moment. (If Guth didn’t steal the show with her performance, Jonah Cochin certainly does here in a brilliantly comic turn containing echoes of Rowen Atkinson in “Love, Actually.”) And the rest of the small ensemble—Gabrielle Bieder, Laura Dellis, and Karylin Veres—have a lot of fun playing multiple characters in Cindy Moon’s glorious period costumes. Director Kapinos even has them show up as a private investigator (well, a three-headed one, anyway) working for Maraczek in one clever scene.
She Loves Me, which served as the basis for such films as “The Shop Around the Corner” and “You’ve Got Mail,” turns out to be an absolutely perfect show to produce in this theatre: all of its many intimate moments are up close and personal for the audience, and the space forces Kapinos and James to be truly inventive when things get more crowded. It is a joyful triumph for Blank Theatre Company as they return after the pandemic layoff.
She Loves Me plays until May 1. Tickets are available at the Blank website.