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THEATER REVIEW

A revival as sweet as tale's love and ice cream

March 21, 2003|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

He says that she "must be the rudest, most difficult, worst-tempered girl in the world." She calls him "a smug, pompous petty tyrant." Ah, the sweet sound of two people in love.

And they are in love. With so many sparks flying, there must be heat underneath -- and if that isn't enough of a clue, there's always the title: "She Loves Me." The 1963 musical -- source of the Barbara Cook standard "Ice Cream" and beloved by a passionate cadre of fans -- returns in a can't-wipe-this-silly-grin-off-my-face presentation by the revival specialists at Reprise! Many things are wonderfully right about this production at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, especially the effervescence of the music as sung by Broadway sweetheart Rebecca Luker, as well as Scott Waara and Kaitlin Hopkins.

Written by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, the music floats along like a summer breeze, and the book by Joe Masteroff breezes along on wit and charm. So it's hard to believe it didn't immediately catch on.

Reviews were good for the show, with its operetta-style score helping to re-create its setting in 1930s Central Europe. But "She Loves Me" lasted for a just-OK 302 performances and closed at a loss. Perhaps its old-fashioned charms were out of step with the about-to-be-liberated '60s. It's hard to say.

Still, the show was an incredible nexus of talent. It was one of the earliest directing credits for hotshot producer Harold Prince. Bock and Harnick followed it up the next year with "Fiddler on the Roof." Masteroff went on to write 1966's "Cabaret." And although "She Loves Me" would be Cook's last major Broadway musical, she later moved on to a concert career and helped to keep its songs alive.

In 1993, the show got a second chance when New York's Roundabout Theater revived it with such success that the production transferred to Broadway. Among the talents behind that staging was an up-and-coming choreographer named Rob Marshall, now nominated for an Oscar for directing "Chicago."

In the buoyant Reprise! production, directed by Gordon Hunt, every detail is solid, every moment confidently performed, even if a couple of minor moments of awkwardness crept into Wednesday's opening performance.

The action takes place mostly in a cosmetics shop in an unnamed city that is, no doubt, Budapest, given that the story is based on the play "Parfumerie" by Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo -- also the source for the movies "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940), "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949) and "You've Got Mail" (1998).

Set designer Robert L. Smith gives the sales floor a neoclassical look, gussied up in white, pink and gold. The tightly precise 13-piece orchestra, conducted by Gerald Sternbach, sits on an elevated platform behind the set.

Georg (Waara) and Amalia (Luker) are lonely hearts pen pals who've never met. They connect beautifully in their letters, but they get off to a bad start when, by chance, Amalia walks into the shop where Georg works, looking for a job. Their love songs -- "Tonight at Eight," "Will He Like Me?," "Ice Cream" and the title song -- sometimes gallop along, all jittery with nerves, sometimes whisper with yearning, wrapped in hope.

Luker is wonderful in the role originated by Cook. She played another Cook role, Marian the librarian, in the recent Broadway revival of "The Music Man," and it's easy to see why she's tapped for such assignments: She's an approachable, everyday beauty who projects smartest-girl-in-the-class intelligence, and she sings with a focus that sends electrical currents through her shimmering soprano.

Waara, recently seen at the Mark Taper Forum in "Big River," conveys good-guy warmth even as he gives Georg just enough of a stubborn streak to set tensions buzzing between the would-be lovers. Hopkins confers glamour-girl looks and a smoky alto to the worldly salesgirl who falls for the cad played with such suave self-assurance by Damon Kirsche. And Lenny Wolpe finds brusqueness behind the store owner's kindly exterior, driving a dark-tinged subplot that results in a gunshot toward the end of the first act.

Dan Mojica's choreography calls attention to itself only when it's supposed to: a sexy dance among the rendezvousing patrons of the cafe where Georg and Amalia are supposed to meet. Mojica turns it into a lunging tango punctuated by backward dips so dramatic that the female dancers squeak with shock and excitement.

The flaws Wednesday were limited to a brief, bad sound balance that had the band overpowering the singers early in Act 2, and Luker's Alabama accent cropping into her speaking voice now and again, putting her at odds with the Mitteleuropa milieu.

But this presentation is as tasty and comforting as the ice cream that Georg brings to Amalia, touching off that wonderful song and pointing them toward their date with destiny.

*

`She Loves Me'

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Wyton Drive entrance, Westwood

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: March 30

Price: $50-$60

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Rebecca Luker...Amalia Balash

Scott Waara...Georg Nowack

Damon Kirsche...Steven Kodaly

Kaitlin Hopkins...Ilona Ritter

Lenny Wolpe...Mr. Maraczek

A Reprise! Broadway's Best presentation. Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Orchestrations by Don Walker, adapted by Frank Matosich Jr. Directed by Gordon Hunt. Musical director Gerald Sternbach. Choreographer Dan Mojica. Sets Robert L. Smith. Costumes Steven Howard & Bob Miller. Lights Steven Young. Stage manager Stephanie Coltrin Meyer.

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