SANTA BARBARA — Musical-comedy fans sigh over "She Loves Me," but not many of them ever see it. Although it occasionally pops up at a college or a dinner theater, producers at major theaters shy away. Perhaps they believe that this 1963 romance isn't sugary enough for half of their audience, nor serious enough for the other half.
Yet surely an audience exists for the sort of faintly bittersweet, Middle-European charm that "She Loves Me" has in abundance. This year, devotees of the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joe Masteroff confection have two chances to prove the skeptics wrong, beginning with Paul Blake's delightful production for the Santa Barbara Theatre Festival.
The 800-seat Lobero Theatre is ideal for this show. It takes well-known names to fill that many seats, though, and it almost looks as if Blake consulted the TVQ ratings before casting the show. Three of his four stars are associated with long-running sitcoms; two of them, Pam Dawber and Jenny O'Hara, appear in the same series ("My Sister Sam"). Was anyone paying attention to the needs of "She Loves Me"?
Apparently so. All of the TV stars acquit themselves admirably, most notably Joel Higgins as the parfumerie clerk who's involved in an anonymous, amatory correspondence with the same woman who drives him crazy at the shop.
Higgins has the sort of boyish good looks that are instantly appealing. Yet here his hair has been prematurely grayed, and we get the impression of someone who realizes those looks won't last forever. It's time for him to meet the love of his life, before life passes him by. Higgins can sing, too--he builds that long note near the beginning of the irrepressible title song until it bubbles over in an irresistible gush of joy.
As his match, Dawber lights up so brightly in her first-act scenes that it's hard to accept her lack of self-confidence when she asks the musical question "Will He Like Me?" Would this woman really have to resort to such unorthodox methods of finding a man? This is quibbling, though; Dawber's voice is properly pretty, and her desperation becomes more convincing in the wake of what she believes is her rejection by her "Dear Friend."
O'Hara has the tart stance and gravelly voice that's right for the role of the shop's secondhand Rose. In casting her ratty boyfriend, Blake looked beyond television and found Broadway's Lara Teeter, who makes the most of his sly, sour departure from the shop ("It's Been Grand Knowing You"). The disparity in their ages adds a subtle note of poignancy to their relationship.
The cast is strong all the way through. Jack Fletcher brings his long face and sad smile to the role of the company yes man. Equally impressive are Zale Kessler's blustery boss, Barry Dennen's preening head waiter and Kevin McCollum's ambitious greenhorn.
Harper MacKay directs half a dozen musicians with impeccable style. Robert Fletcher's revolving parfumerie set and the fancy clothes in which he dressed the shop's customers look lovely in the glow of Lawrence Metzler's lighting design.
The second chance to see a full-scale "She Loves Me" this year will be the California Music Theatre's staging at Pasadena Civic Auditorium in the fall. But neither production will linger for long. The Santa Barbara version plays tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., at 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara. Tickets: $12-$20, (805) 963-0761.