She Loves Me is probably the best Broadway musical you’ve never heard of (unless you’re a Broadway nerd). It’s an unassuming, Old World charmer, testament to craft, witchcraft and romance that echoes the operettas of Romberg and Friml. It didn’t make much of an impression when it opened in 1963 despite an astonishing pedigree: Based on the same Miklós László play that Ernst Lubitsch turned into 1940’s Little Shop Around The Corner with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (and, much later, Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), She Loves Me was the first show Hal Prince directed from inception to opening night. The score is by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who next would write Fiddler on the Roof, and the book is by Joe Masteroff, who would next write the book for Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret.
And the star was Barbara Cook, who had played Marian Paroo in The Music Man and Cunegonde in Candide, Broadway royalty indeed. Of course, 1963 was the beginning of the British invasion of pop music and probably no time for this Hungarian pastry, set in a Budapest parfumerie and occupied with the “Dear Friend” love letters of anonymous pen pals who in real life loathe each other until they don’t.
The Roundabout Theatre Company presented a brilliant revival of the show 23 years ago starring Judy Kuhn (currently on Broadway in Fun Home), and now returns to it again, and I’m thrilled to say that while I have aged, She Loves Me has not, not one bit. The score remains enchanting — the best-known song probably is “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which would become for Cook what “People” is for Barbra Streisand and “Memory” for Betty Buckley. This time the unlikely lovers are played by the infinitely appealing Laura Benanti (ABC’s Nashville and a Tony winner for Gypsy) and Zachary Levi (NBC’s Chuck), delightful as irritated co-workers in Maraczek’s Parfumerie by day, swoony epistolary confidants by night.
Their comic foils are played by Jane Krakowski (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and every bit the sex kitten here that she was in the Roundabout’s revival of Nine awhile back) and Gavin Creel (Hair) as the shop’s resident smarmy Lothario. The cuckolded shop owner Maraczek is played resonantly by the fine actor Byron Jennings. The music-box
set is by David Rockwell, the quietly resplendent lighting is by Donald Holder; the elegant costumes are by Jeff Mahshie. The team of Scott Ellis (director) and Warren Carlyle (choreography) lets the show breathe, and with the exception of the oddly messy Café Imperiale scene, it all flows by, weightless as a cream puff. One nit, though it’s a substantial one: At Studio 54, the orchestra (under the expert baton of Paul Gemignani) is split between boxes high on either side of the stage. Not good.
Timothy Olyphant, the star of Justified among many other shows, plays country-Western star Strings McCrane in Kenneth Lonergan’s new comedy of very bad manners Hold On to Me Darling. Strings’ mother has just passed, as they say in C&W songs, evoking in him a neediness way beyond his normal, day-to-day self-love. Remember the scene in Robert Altman’s Nashville when Keith Carradine sings “I’m Easy” and the camera cuts to the faces of every woman in the audience certain he’s singing it to her? That’s Strings.
Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, This Is Our Youth) knows stardust hypocrisy inside out and when Strings departs from a Kansas City gig with his masseuse (Jenn Lyon) in tow — or, more aptly, with her claws sunk deep into his well-muscled shoulders — to Nashville to mourn, we are transported to the C&W iteration of a comedy in which no skirt is unchased and no heartfelt confession is more than a phrase or two away from shameless manipulation. Strings’ chief victim is his just-distant-enough cousin Essie (beautifully underplayed by Adelaide Clemens), but there’s also collateral damage for Strings’ brother (C.J. Wilson) and fawning assistant (Keith Nobbs).
Jonathan Hogan, appearing late in the play as Strings’ long-estranged father, injects a dose of poignance into the proceedings that’s quite touching. Neil Pepe has staged the longish evening with an ear for the nuance of Lonergan’s speeches that keeps the whole thing from collapsing. It’s all very funny, but Altman accomplished much the same impact in that single, memorable sweep of another unwitting Nashville fan base.