There’s a sense of sweet desperation among the characters who work at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me,” which is getting a valentine of a production from Huntington Theater Company, marking helmer and artistic director Nicholas Martin’s Beantown swan song. The show will have an extended life when it follows its Boston run with a stint at Williamstown Theater Festival, where Martin launches his first season as the new a.d.
Amid all the “good morning”s and “how can I help you”s at the happiest of unguent shops in Budapest is a heartfelt longing among its earnest clerks looking for love, security and position. This human undercurrent drives and deepens the simple narrative about two of the shop’s argumentative employees, unaware they are the object of each other’s love letters.
(The musical is based on Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo’s play “Parfumerie,” which earlier served as the inspiration for the 1940 James Stewart film “The Shop Around the Corner” and the 1949 Judy Garland musical “In the Good Old Summertime” and later served as the inspiration for Tom-Hanks-Meg Ryan starrer “You’ve Got Mail.”)
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It’s just a matter of time until the big reveal arrives, but this show derives its gentle pleasures from what comes before: the hopes, ambitions and needs of a group of people the audience comes to care about.
Martin’s tasty and tasteful production creates a world of period warmth, starting with James Noone’s candy box of a set, with the terrific 13-piece orchestra perched above and lovingly lit by Kenneth Posner and Philip Rosenberg.
But all would be for naught if the audience merely window-shopped and didn’t buy the notion of the romantic couple on display.
One might not automatically think of the extravagantly comedic Brooks Ashmanskas (“Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me”) in the role of Georg, the mild-mannered, middle-manager hero of the story. But the thesp strikes the right tone of a less-than-dashing, doughy, buttoned-down man. Stunned at the prospects of what could be his last chance at love, he’s both thrilled at the possibility and guarded against disappointment.
Ashmanskas tamps down his natural flair for comic eruption, replacing it with a measured, sympathetic and charming perf that doesn’t overwhelm the ensemble chamber work. But when love finally comes for sure, Ashmanskas lets loose in the title song that allows his character — and the audience — to simply and grandly celebrate the joys of love, and of musical comedy.
As the new salesgirl and lonelyheart, Kate Baldwin is a delight, full of energy, cleverness and resolve — only showing her character’s secret fears and doubts in the private musings of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s lovely “Will He Like Me,” “Dear Friend” and an especially creamy “Vanilla Ice Cream.”
In supporting roles, cast is all on the same page, balancing the silly and the sublime. Jessica Stone puts the right oddball spin on love-sap llona, giving full honor to Harnick’s deft and delicate lyrics in “A Trip to the Library.” Troy Britton Johnson is slippery but not too oily as shop cad Kodaly. Dick Latessa brings an old pro’s crustiness to Mr. Maraczek. Jeremy Beck nails his musical moment in “Try Me,” as the overly enthusiastic messenger clerk with dreams of his own. And Mark Nelson is the stoic embodiment of a retail survivor.
There is but one large dance-chorus number — slyly choreographed and perfectly proportioned for the show by Denis Jones, with standout perfs by Marc Vietor as the headwaiter and Jason Babinsky as an athletic busboy. But the show has a constant swirl of movement thanks to Martin’s elaborately staged arrivals of shop customers, bringing comic grace notes to even the smallest of roles.