A fine new revival is as sweet and sugary as its most famous tune, but never loses touch with the characters’ pain and heartbreak
“She Loves Me” is best known for the song “Vanilla Ice Cream,” in which the leading lady expresses her love for a man while eating a carton of ice cream. Barbara Cook, the show’s original Amalia Balash, turned it into her signature song when she reinvented herself as a concert and cabaret singer in the 1970s.
This 1963 musical by Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick is also notable for a very different, much less lighthearted reason. What other Broadway musical comedy features a serious suicide attempt before the end of the first act?
Scott Ellis’ fine new revival of “She Loves Me,” which opened Thursday at the Roundabout’s Studio 54, prepares us for that offstage self-inflicted gunshot and never loses sight of it in Act 2. Yes, much of the show is as sugary and sweet as Amalia’s late-in-the-show dessert, but evident also are the pain and heartbreak of infidelity, unemployment, being jerked around by a loved one and getting fired from your job.
David Rockwell’s magnificent and ever-changing set design takes its cue from the book’s pivotal object, a musical cigarette box being sold at a Budapest parfumerie in 1934. (The musical is based on Miklos Laszlo’s play “Illatszertar,” which inspired no fewer than three movies: “The Shop Around the Corner,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” and “You’ve Got Mail.”)
Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi), a shop employee, thinks a parfumerie has no business selling cigarette boxes. No sooner does he let the boss (Byron Jennings) know his objection, than he’s upstaged by Amalia (Laura Benanti), desperate for a job, who immediately sells one to a customer who doesn’t smoke. Georg and Amalia hate each other from that moment on. But they’re also in love with each other through their anonymous letter-writing without knowing each other’s real identity.
Equally important, they never indulge in the usual musical-comedy tricks that attract Tony attention. Ellis wisely hands all that kind of Broadway shtick to the show’s ill-matched secondary couple, played by the warring Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel.
He also gives a lovely wind-up-doll quality to all the shop customers (Alison Cimmet, Cameron Adams, Laura Shoop, Jenifer Foote, Gina Ferrall), which is entirely appropriate for a musical that seems to spring delightfully from a music box.