The Perfect Christmas Musical

Maraczek s Parfumery ExteriorI fell in love with She Loves Me when I was in charge of the spotlight for the Lebanon Community Theatre’s production in spring 1967, and I managed to see nearly every stage of the rehearsals for the show.

While there are two main characters, Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack, it’s really more of an ensemble show as each of the seven characters gets their own storyline and song, and even the head waiter at the café that plays an important part in the final scene of Act I gets to shine with his song “A Romantic Atmosphere”.

Romantic AtmosphereThe setting is Hungary in the 1930s, and while most of the characters’ names are given a Central European pronunciation (ah-mahl-ya bahl-ash), Georg is pronounced George. Oh, well, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, as Emerson used to say.

Although the musical is generally light, it does have some dark elements, including an attempted suicide. I usually say it’s one of my favorite musicals not written by Stephen Sondheim or Rodgers & Hammerstein, and actually, Sondheim has praised the show and has even included one of its songs, “Vanilla Ice Cream”, on his list of songs he wishes he had written.

He offered me vanilla ice creamMost of the action takes place in and around around Maraczek’s Parfumerie (a cosmetics store), owned by Mr. Maraczek, where Georg is the chief clerk. Amalia arrives to fill a job vacancy and she and Georg take an instant dislike to each other. Well, you can probably guess where that plot thread is headed.

Amalia and Georg MeetMeanwhile, two other clerks, Ilona Ritter and Steven Kodaly, are having an on-again-off-again-romance, while middle-aged Ladislav Sipos is worried about keeping his job, as business has fallen off. The delivery boy, Arpad, is hustling to be promoted to a real sales clerk, and the owner, Mr. Maraczek, suddenly seems to have a personality change and is taking all his frustrations out on poor Georg.

The book, which is one of the best books for a musical in my opinion, no second act problems in this show, is by Joe Masteroff, and the songs are by the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Their best score, in my opinion. Each song, and there are more than 20 of them, makes its point and doesn’t linger; the show moves quickly. Only the aforementioned “A Romantic Atmosphere” and the second act “Twelve Days to Christmas” have any major dance routines for the ensemble.

12 Days to ChristmasI call it the perfect Christmas musical because it reaches its denouement on Christmas Eve.

There have been three Broadway productions, the original in 1963 featured Barbara Cook as Amalia and Jack Cassidy as Kodaly. There was a revival in 1993 at the Roundabout, which I saw (twice), and then another in 2016 which was recorded.

Amalia and IlonaHappily, I have a copy of that, and that’s what I watched last evening. It’s a good cast, including Jane Krakowski as Ilona and Peter Bartlett (you might know him as Nigel, Asa’s butler) as the Head Waiter, and the sets by David Rockwell are gorgeous. I find Scott Ellis’s direction a little too busy on occasion, and Zachary Levi’s Georg keeps slipping into his native southern accent, and the actors sometimes go for a quick laugh in their line readings— Oh, but those are minor blemishes. It’s a fine production and I love this She Loves Me, just as I’ve loved every amateur and professional production of it that I’ve ever seen. 

It’s a true jewel box of a musical.

She Loves Me ProgramThinking back to that first Lebanon Community Theatre production, which featured my classmate Beth Horst in the chorus, I can still see F. John Osborne (who would go on to direct the community theatre’s next production in which I got a role) as the Head Waiter; he was absolutely hilarious. And Shirley Bender as Amalia and Andrew Steckbeck as Georg; Shirley had a wonderful soprano voice but Andrew’s tended to crack on the high notes, particularly in the song “Tango Tragique”.

Interestingly, that song has been cut from all subsequent professional productions. I had always thought it might be because its vocal range was too wide for most musical theater singers to negotiate, but I’ve been told that it was a negotiation between Bock and Harnick; take out “Tango Tragique” and restore the verse to Amalia’s subsequent song “Dear Friend”. And while I like the restoration of the verse, I’ve always regretted the loss of “Tango Tragique” as I don’t think the scene plays as well without, cracked notes and all.

A Trip to the LibraryBut what I really remember from that long ago production is Joan Buck as Ilona and Raymond Reigle as Sipos, particularly the Act II number where Ilona sings “A Trip to the Library” as Sipos reacts. The chemistry between those two has never been equalled in my mind.

Curtain Calls

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