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STAGE REVIEW : 'She Loves Me' Worth Wait of Slow Warm-Up

December 14, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Next to "The Music Man," there's no more charming musical in the American repertory than "She Loves Me." It shouldn't take the audience half the evening to warm up to it, as happened with the California Music Theatre's revival Saturday night at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

But then it also took Gary Davis' actors that long to warm up to it. In Act One they were still worrying about whether Charles Ketter's sets would trundle into place on time, or whether Ward Carlisle's lights would shadow their faces, or whether they had the right range for Jerry Bock's songs, with their references to Victor Herbert.

In Act Two, possibly deciding that all was lost anyway, Davis' actors relaxed, and the charm of the show began to work. By Thursday or Friday, they should be ready to open.

Unfortunately, they'll also be ready to close: Sunday is the last performance. This is the way musicals are put together in the provinces, but California Music Theatre is trying to compete against Civic Light Opera, which certainly can stand some competition. But half-ready shows won't do it.

All that said, "She Loves Me" remains a lovely piece of musical-theater writing. It was the show that Bock and Jerry Herman wrote before "Fiddler on the Roof," to a gently funny book by Joe Masteroff. It's based on the old film, "The Shop Around the Corner," and its premise goes back long before that. A man (Gary Beach) and a woman (Susan Watson) can't stand each other on sight, proving to everyone else in the story that they love each other.

The gimmick is that they are already lovers on paper, except that they don't know it. The plot is cleverly worked out, but the show's strength isn't the plot but its feeling for its characters, not merely the two lovers but their fellow workers at the little perfume shop around the corner.

Nobody here wants a great deal out of life but the boss' approval and someone to go home to after work. Still, they're not drab. The score catches that: the songs are lilting, but witty--always ready to wink at their own sentimentality.

Beach and Watson go well together, two common-sense people who don't see themselves romantically and have a hard time imagining that anyone else would. Watson's range is perfectly adequate when the Victor Herbert question comes up, and Beach's "She Loves Me" makes you glad you stayed until the second act.

Beth Howland and Steeve Arlen are the comedy lovers, he a smug rat and she the girl who always believes him. Each has some vocal problems early on, but finishes strongly. Tom Hatten (yes, TV's Tom Hatten) has no problems whatsoever as a senior clerk who has always lived within his limitations. If the phrase applies to someone who has been around so long, Hatten is a find.

Below that, the casting doesn't always fit the character, as with Randy Brenner, who is too old to be playing 17-year-old delivery boys. The physical production isn't particularly attractive either. Ketter's sets are cumbersome even when they do trundle into place on time, and it's annoying that the lights have to keep going up and down to accommodate their changes--if we've learned anything about the musical over the last 20 years, it's the virtue of keeping the energy going.

Yet Davis discards two old-fashioned devices that would have served this operetta-like musical, nicely: the curtain and the orchestra pit.

Jeff Rizzo's orchestra is positioned on the roof of the perfume shop, meaning that Rizzo has to watch the action over his shoulder (as distracting to us as it must be to him), and the proscenium is as bare as if this were an evening of Brecht. Doubtless there were reasons for these choices, but neither adds charm to the show. We loved it--eventually. But it should have happened sooner.

"SHE LOVES ME" A revival of the 1963 musical at the California Music Theatre. Book Joe Masteroff. Music Jerry Bock. Lyrics Sheldon Harnick. Director Gary Davis. Musical director Jeff Rizzo. Kodaly's numbers staged by Rob Barrow. Set design Charles Ketter. Lighting Ward Carlisle. Costumes Garland Riddle. With Tom Hatten, Randy Brenner, Beth Howland, Steeve Arlen, Gary Beach, Sandy Kenyon, Karen Benjamin, Ann Winkowski, Brenda Runyon, Susan Watson, Kathie Cole Freeman, Nicolette Abernathy, Susan Mieras, Von Schauer, Ace Mask, Kevin Pariseau, Ron Garrison, Jeff Austin, Josie Dapar. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets $20-$35. Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St; (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1306.

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