Through Sunday, Dec. 9
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill
There’s more than a touch of old-world charm—but a few too many pounds of old-world patriarchy—in She Loves Me, a 1963 musical-comedy rework of Hungarian playwright Miklós László’s 1937 comedy Illatszertár (Parfumerie).
Songwriter Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s witty, nimble tunes knowingly puncture the love/hate relationships of the harried clerks and upscale customers of Maraczek’s, a tony Budapest perfume shop. Anyone who’s ever worked in retail will recognize the unctuous kowtowing in “Thank You, Madam” and relish the digs in “Sounds While Selling,” whose laughable lyrics make surreal non sequiturs out of overlapping countertop conversations.
But then the veil of consumer-based bonhomie and goodwill is completely rent by the show’s eleven o’clock number, an increasingly frantic “Twelve Days to Christmas,” propelled by Kirsten Sanderson’s direction, Tracy Bersley’s gratifying choreography, and Mark Hartman’s peerless six-piece orchestra. They also drolly collaborate in “A Romantic Atmosphere,” during which a wet-behind-the-ears café busboy (David Fine) finds himself the hapless center of an impromptu, comical tango orgy, as the patrons of a tasteful trysting spot briefly let their illicit passions get the better of them—and everyone else.
But Joe Masteroff’s book keeps the tables sharply tilted in favor of Georg (a dashing Michael Maliakel), the snippy head clerk at the perfume shop, who lords it over Jenny Latimer’s earnest Amalia from the moment she comes in seeking a job. Understandably, she resents and resists this treatment using verbal sales-floor combat.
But unbeknown to either of them, Amalia has anonymously responded to the lonely-hearts ad Georg anonymously placed in the city’s paper, and in their correspondence—last century’s analog version of online dating—each has taken liberties with the truth while building up the other in their imaginations as an idealized lover. Something’s got to give, of course, when workplace enemies realize they’ve been wooing each other.
Georg’s cowardice about meeting his mystery date ironically gives him the upper hand when he’s the first to realize Amalia’s been writing him. Again, he exploits the situation to his advantage, keeping her in the dark during an inexplicably creepier-than-necessary “Tango Tragique.” Power and its imbalance are more important than equity or amity, here and in the title song, where an eavesdropping Georg learns Amalia’s true feelings and exults in the most important finding—that he is loved, not that he loves.
Throughout this putative romance, the fears and needs of a man who keeps his cards well hidden come before those of the woman who acts more forthrightly. We don’t even need to know that Laszlo’s comedy has been made into three films and a musical to realize that we’ve heard this one before.