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Lack of Trust Nips 'She Loves Me'

Theater review: The 1963 musical lends itself well to a revival, but the Moonlight production tries too hard to help an able script.

November 26, 1996|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VISTA — "She Loves Me," an intimate musical about two clerks who think they hate each other until they find out they're each other's anonymous pen pals, swiftly closed after its 1963 Broadway debut. Blame was placed on that year's larger than life competition of "Hello, Dolly!," "Oliver!" and "Funny Girl."

In retrospect, this charmingly detailed piece about clerks in a Hungarian perfume shop, based on the same Miklos Laszlo play ("Parfumerie") that inspired the 1940 movie "The Shop Around the Corner," may have also committed the crime of being ahead of its time. "She Loves Me," in a revival at Moonlight Amphitheatre's Avo Playhouse, is increasingly in demand at regional houses.

Sure, the successful 1993 revival on Broadway helped bring it to public attention. But what's remarkable is how well "She Loves Me" meets today's demand for smaller, more budget-conscious musicals. It also, very modernly, celebrates ordinary people rather than larger-than-life characters who call for star turns.

The only problem with Moonlight's production is it doesn't trust its material enough. Too many of the actors mug for the audience instead of inhabiting their parts with style.

Orange County-based director Ray Limon, who has done fine work at the Moonlight, pushes too hard here. The most natural, and therefore winning, performances come from the leads, pen-pal writers and warring clerks Georg (John Grzesiak) and Amalia (Sandy Campbell).

Campbell sings with irresistible clarity and power. She's thin to the point of looking frail, has pointed features and an odd, interesting face. But when she pours that surprisingly big and moving voice into the exultant "Vanilla Ice Cream" and the plaintive "Dear Friend," her expression and her music transform her into a beauty.

Nice moments are also contributed by David Corbin as Steven Kodaly, the lascivious clerk, and Joseph Grienenberger in the one part that really does call for overacting--the pretentious, controlling and very funny headwaiter who is tyrannical about maintaining "A Romantic Atmosphere," the subject of his signature song.

The music for "She Loves Me" is a testament to the range of lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, better known as the talent behind "Fiddler on the Roof" and the too-often neglected Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello!"

Joshua Carr's musical direction does fairly well with the limited four-person orchestral support. Still, much more could have been milked from one of the show's glories, the frenzied "Twelve Days to Christmas" song in which the clerks and ensemble sing about the escalating madness of shopping as the big day looms closer and closer.

Walter Huntoon's versatile set design moves from shop to restaurant to office to bedroom. Kevin Jordan's costumes are elegantly romantic.

Even when flawed, "She Loves Me" has undeniable pleasures. It deserves a good run. And many more happy revivals.

* "She Loves Me," Avo Playhouse, 303 East Vista Way, Vista. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $9-$16. (619) 724-2110. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

John Grzesiak: Georg Nowack

Sandy Campbell: Amalia Balash

Sandra Kopitzke: Ilona Ritter

David Corbin: Steven Kodaly

Ralph Johnson: Mr. Maraczek

Don H. Harmon: Ladislav Sipos

Christopher Lee Short: Arpad Laszlo

Joseph Grienenberger: Headwaiter

A Moonlight Amphitheatre production of a musical based on a play by Miklos Laszlo. Book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed and choreographed by Ray Limon. Musical direction by Joshua Carr. Accompanist/conductor: Don LeMaster. Sets: Walter Huntoon. Lights: Peter Smith. Costumes: Kevin Jordan. Sound: Michael D. Rias. Stage manager: Stanley D. Cohen.

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