Hungarian emigre Miklos Laszlo’s gentle little 1930s play about two combatant co-workers who are unknowingly lovelorn mail correspondents has certainly found a life in the U.S. It was the basis of the Ernst Lubitsch film “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) and the Van Johnson/Judy Garland musical “In the Good Old Summer Time” (1949). The subsequent 1950s stage musical “She Loves Me” is a rarely produced little gem that has been lovingly brought to life by the Actors Co-op, under the insightful guidance of director Bonnie Hellman and an outstanding ensemble.
Set in a small perfumery shop in pre-World War II Eastern Europe, the plot follows the misadventures of Georg (Kelley Hinman) and Amalia (Treva Tegtmeier) as they constantly battle in the workplace but are each secretly carrying on a love affair of letters with an unknown correspondent who addresses every passion-filled note “Dear Friend.” Joe Masteroff’s book cuts quite a few corners in plot development but the show flies on the inventive, melodious tunes of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and the luminous performances of Hinman and Tegtmeier, who sing as well as they act and vice versa.
There is such a strong sense of unrequited passion between the letter-crossed duo in the first act as they anticipate meeting for the first time; the longing just oozes from Hinman’s “Tonight at Eight” and Tegtmeier’s “Will He Like Me?” Tegtmeier’s Amalia also instills a world of heartbreak into that sadly comical anthem to being stood up, “Dear Friend.” One of the marvels of the show is watching the two become more personally drawn to each other in the second act as Amalia’s blossoming attraction to Georg bursts forth in Tegtmeier’s exuberant rendition of “Vanilla Ice Cream” and Hinman’s joy-filled outing on the title song, “She Loves Me.”
The production offers some deliciously comical supporting roles. Gus Corrado is perfect as the wise elderly shop clerk, Ladislav, who knows the most important thing in life is steady employment. Rachel Sheppard offers a marvelously comedic sensuality as the not-too-bright good-time girl, Ilona, who finally rejects the insincere advances of the shop cad, Kodaly, played to the oily hilt by John Allsopp. Also lending solid support are Louis Tucker as the troubled shop owner Mr. Maraczek and Welborn Ferrene as the enthusiastic delivery boy with ambitions, Arpad.
Enhanced by the minimal but effective choreography of Chris Salman and a small but full-voiced ensemble chorus, such production numbers as “Sounds While Selling,” “Goodbye, Georg” and “Twelve Days to Christmas” are true highlights. Deserving special mention, though, is the outing of Tom Hillman as the maniacal Head Waiter in the hilarious “A Romantic Atmosphere.”
A true star of the production is the outstanding modular set design of Alex Grayman that always evolves into the perfect atmosphere for each scene, further enhanced by Alan Falkner’s lighting. Deserving no less credit are the wonderful period costume designs of Shon LeBlanc and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg.
The only drawback to this otherwise superior production is music director Craig Victor Fentor’s rigid, prerecorded computer-synthesized orchestrations that are often out of sync with the creative flow of the onstage performances. It would have been far better to omit all the computer-sampled horns, fiddles, bells and whistles and have a live keyboard duo that could truly interact with all that great talent.