The Roundabout Theatre Company is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, and it is returning to a show that was a success for them when they last revived it in 1993: She Loves Me, a musical version of the celebrated Ernst Lubitsch movie The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which had also been musicalized in 1949 as a vehicle for Judy Garland called In the Good Old Summertime.
She Loves Me is the story of feuding workers at a shop in 1930s Budapest who are also secret pen pals with each other, a very familiar concept by now that was done one more time for movies as an ungodly Nora Ephron update called You’ve Got Mail (1998). The otherworldly soprano Barbara Cook, who starred in the original 1963 production of She Loves Me, has included her show-stopping number “Vanilla Ice Cream” in many of her cabaret acts for forty years, hitting the high C at the end of that song for far longer than might be expected of a human larynx.
This new She Loves Me is designed in glaring and rather nauseating purples and pinks, so that the parfumerie run by Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings) has the look of a wedding cake days past its prime. Aside from the amusing “A Romantic Atmosphere,” which satirizes a somewhat sleazy restaurant for lovers, the songs here by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock are nearly all soliloquies where each character gets to face out and describe their inner lives with streams of rapidly sung lyrics steeped in psychological detail. There are no thankless roles in this musical; everyone who works in the Maraczek shop gets their turn and their moment on stage.
As the somewhat desperate Ilona, Jane Krakowski does her lovable sex bomb characterization, which she has down to a science, and she takes such pleasure in it that that pleasure is contagious. As her dastardly sometime-boyfriend Kodaly, Gavin Creel matches Krakowski in size and zeal, and goes over the top with his villainous character in an exuberantly physical way. As Amalia, the part played by Cook in the original production, Laura Benanti has the best or most notable songs, including the plaintive “Will He Like Me?” and the lovely “Dear Friend” and the demanding “Vanilla Ice Cream.” Benanti sings them very well, hitting that high C note at the end of “Vanilla Ice Cream” with no problem, but she needs to open herself up more to the vulnerability in the role. She misses the romantic yearning of Amalia, and the fear, and the pretentiousness (all of which the exceptional Margaret Sullavan does so touchingly in the original Lubitsch film of this story). Benanti’s Amalia seems sturdy and tough, without any of the girlish hope that needs to come through in her songs.
She Loves Me is a show of such charm that it works well and enjoyably in spite of flaws in design and performance, and in this case it has several performers who know just how to do those songs straight out to the audience. This is an intimate musical, a gift for musical theater actors, and likely to remain a perennial for that reason.