My wife has literally wanted to see this musical for decades. She owned the soundtrack, so I heard it first when we were dating. The kids probably can quote the lyrics by this point. However, for whatever reason, it is rarely performed.
This is kind of puzzling. After all, the lyrics and music are by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who are best known for the smash Fiddler On The Roof. The book was written by Joe Masteroff, who also wrote Cabaret. The story should also be familiar. It was adapted from Parfumerie, by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo - the source material for the Jimmy Stewart film, Shop Around the Corner, and later, You’ve Got Mail. Whatever the case, this particular version seems unjustly neglected.
The plot is classic: guy and gal are co-workers, and don’t realize that they are also corresponding through “lonely hearts.” At work, they bicker and hate each other, but are madly in love with their correspondents. In this case, the place of employment is Maraczek’s perfume shop, the guy is Georg the persecuted assistant manager, and the gal is Amalia, a newly hired clerk with a knack for sales. Mr. Maraczek is grouchy because he is sure is wife is having an affair with Georg. This isn’t true, as it turns out - the suave rake Kodaly is actually responsible. Meanwhile, Kodaly is also bedding the worldly yet ditzy Ilona, another clerk. She is sure that Amalia is setting herself up for disappointment, but has to admit that she has gotten nothing but disappointment from her own in-person romance. Rounding out the main characters are Mr. Sipos, a middle aged man with a family; and Arpad, the delivery boy. There are a number of mostly anonymous supporting characters, which in this version were covered by the versatile company members.
Obviously, this is a setup for misunderstandings, comedy, and songs. My favorites are “Perspective,” sung by Mr. Sipos about how he stays calm during Maraczek’s tantrums; and “Twelve Days To Christmas,” which has brilliant lines like, “These are the people who plan their days wisely and well / These are the people who shop in time, and they can go to hell!”
Staging a musical with song and dance and a complicated set is a challenge in a small theater like The Empty Space - if nothing else, dance numbers around hundreds of glass perfume bottles takes some...care. As usual, TES did a fantastic job - kudos to set designer Becky Ingle for making the shop a true “pop up,” unfolding out of a small space in a flash.
Picture shamelessly stolen from Becky Ingle
The cast featured some of the usual suspects, along with a few I hadn’t seen in major roles before. Nick Ono, as Georg, is familiar of course. In addition to his many roles, he usually choreographs the dance numbers. He also has a fine singing voice to go with his knack for playing insecurity well.
Opposite him was Alyssa Bonnano, who I don’t think I have seen in a major part. Another great voice, and fit the part well. She was feisty and vulnerable by turns, and the romance was believable as a result.
Georg (Nick Ono) and Amalia (Alyssa Bonnano)
Tessa Ogles has been in a bunch of plays in the last few years - most recently she played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. As the worldly yet unlucky Ilona, she was excellent. Watching her facial expressions during the duet with Amalia where they talk of their love lives was fascinating.
You can always tell the rake by the pencil mustache. (Okay, unless you are watching The 39 Steps…) I’m pretty sure Markelle Taylor has been in the ensemble in past productions, but it was great to see him swagger and strut as Kodaly. Between his dance moves and suave baritone, he was as oily as you could wish. He and Ogles had great chemistry (see the footnote too.)
Ilona (Tessa Ogles) and Mr. Kodaly (Markelle Taylor)
Steve Evans is a TES regular, most recently in Bus Stop, and he brought his homespun vibe to Maraczek - you could see him go to pieces slowly, as his typical good humor crumbled under the stress of feeling his age and losing his marriage.
Mr. Maraczek (Steve Evans)
As the fretful Mr. Sipos, Bryce Loo gave a convincing performance. He has returned to Bakersfield after a number of years, and I don’t recall seeing him before. Another fine voice, I hope to see him in future productions.
Mr. Sipos (Bryce Loo)
Lucas Shearson is a young and up-and-coming local actor who has been in some pretty big parts lately. Unfortunately, I was unable to see Big River, where he played Huck Finn. As delivery boy Arpad, he showed his acting and singing talents. I think he is one to keep an eye on.
Mr. Sipos (Bryce Loo) and Arpad (Lucas Shearson)
The ensemble was, as I noted, excellent, filling in multiple parts each, singing in the big numbers, and doing some impressive dance moves.
She Loves Me runs through December 23. If you are in the Bakersfield area, I highly recommend it.
Just a note on how times have changed:
I recently read Devil In The Grove, about false rape accusations in the Jim Crow South. Thus, it really struck me to see a young African American man cast as a rake flirting with a white woman. Not that long ago - my parents’ lifetime - this could get the man murdered, either by a lynch mob, or by law enforcement, or by the courts. (Also, my second daughter is reading To Kill A Mockingbird for freshman English.)
In these times where an open white nationalist can win the presidency, an open neo-Nazi can get elected to congress in Iowa, and literal Nazis march in our streets, it is comforting to remember that things have changed. Obviously, we have a long way to go, and a vocal minority of hateful bigots had a major victory in 2016. But the decent people of the world have pushed back before, and we can and will do it again. Even here in Red Kern County a black man can kiss a white woman and nobody loses their shit. And that makes me happy and hopeful.