It's not enough for a musical to be nice. But if it is also clever, droll, tuneful and easy on the eye--nice doesn't hurt.
We are talking about "She Loves Me." This show has been around since 1963, but I had never seen it. Neither, from the freshness of their laughter, had most of Thursday's opening-night crowd at the Ahmanson Theatre. We probably could have gone right back in and seen it again.
Imported from the Santa Barbara Theatre Festival, it's a dear show. Not cute. Not arch. And thank God, not campy. Anybody can spoof the operetta tradition. This is an attempt to capture the idealism and the charm of operetta, while keeping the characters in the vernacular.
You're also reminded of the light summer-weight shows that Jerome Kern and P. G. Wodehouse used to write, one of which we are about to have at the Doolittle, "Leave It to Jane." There's an innocence here, a respect for the idea that even in musical comedy, people can have finer feelings.
The book is by Joe Masteroff, with songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick--songs that seem to be in the air even before the characters burst into them. The story is the same as that in the 1940 movie "The Shop Around the Corner," and we get the same feeling that the setting isn't middle Europe at all, but River City, at least as far as the feelings go.
Pam Dawber plays Miss Balash, the attractive new clerk in the perfume shop. Joel Higgins plays Mr. Nowack, the assistant manager, who takes an instant dislike to her--strange, because neither of them is getting any younger, and they would make a charming couple.
There's some lovely acting, as well as singing, here. Both actors know how to give their characters a sense of privacy. Higgins doesn't understand why he is being so truculent, but trusts the impulse as some sort of bachelor imperative. And Dawber has too much spirit to let him walk all over her. They can't even agree to disagree.
At the same time, each has a secret lover, someone to whom he/she has been writing for years without knowing her/his identity. Guess who these correspondents turn out to be? But the cream of the jest is what happens afterward. He, for instance, hits on a plan to eliminate his paper self as a rival by. . . .
All this is in the best tradition of operetta foolishness. So is the subplot in which the snakey Kodaly (Lara Teeter) keeps taking the ever-hopeful Miss Ritter (Jenny O'Hara) for a ride--unless he has got an appointment that evening with some other lady.
The background story about the cuckolded shop owner (Zale Kessler) is a little sadder than we expect, however. And the gentleness and wit with which the story is told give a credibility to the characters, no matter how charmingly unlikely the story gets.
One is quite giddy at intermission: Why isn't this show performed more often? (It will be done again at Christmas by the California Music Theatre in Pasadena.) A dip at the start of Act II suggests that it's starting to run out of ideas.
But then Higgins delivers--discovers--the title song. Not only is he exhilarated to discern that she loves him (something she will discern in time), he approves her taste. He's a worthy person, only a little gray on top, and they ought to be very happy together.
As in "Pirates of Penzance" at this address, Dawber makes an adorable leading lady, with plenty of voice for those high ranging songs--even a spot of mock coloratura. However, unlike some sopranos, she doesn't have one drippy moment. She does occasionally want to belt, as do others, and this tendency is to be avoided. Charm makes you come to it.
Director Paul Blake's supporting cast is very small, but everybody understands the show's warmth and good manners. These don't exclude a certain bite, as in Jack Fletcher's portrayal of a supine clerk named Sipos, whose credo is: Keep Your Job.
This show also allows itself some impatience with the kind of people who do their Christmas shopping in August. And we note that the messenger boy (Kevin McCollum) doesn't get a motorcycle for Christmas. Enough happy ending is enough.
However, the twin Christmas trees light up, and the snow comes down--rather sparsely. Designed by Robert Fletcher, this isn't the most opulent show that's ever played the Ahmanson. But it's the nicest show that's played there since "My One and Only." It will be there through Aug. 2, at least.
'SHE LOVES ME'
A revival of the 1963 musical at the Ahmanson Theatre. Presented by Paul Blake and Lawrence H. Patton, in association with Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. Originally presented by the Santa Barbara Theatre Festival. Book Joe Masteroff. Music Jerry Bock. Lyrics Sheldon Harnick. Based on a play by Miklos Laszlo. Director Paul Blake. Musical director Harper McKay. Scenery and costumes Robert Fletcher. Lighting Lawrence Metzler. Production stage manager Bill Holland. Associate producer Montgomery Kuklenski. With Jack Fletcher, Kevin McCollum, Jenny O'Hara, Lara Teeter, Joel Higgins, Zale Kessler, Polly Wood, Roberta Sengstack, Jody Pusan, Pam Dawber, Doug Carfrae, Barry Dennen, Alex Palermo and Jan Pessano. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Closes Aug. 2. Tickets $12-$35. (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.