It’s a wonder no one has written a dating app-era reskin of Perfumerie, Hungarian playwright Miklós László’s 1937 stage romance. The oft-recycled story got its last major update as the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan/Nora Ephron reunion flick You’ve Got Mail back in the days of dial-up internet. She Loves Me, the play’s Broadway musical translation was, like the two 1940s movie versions, The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime, a nostalgia-scented period piece even when it was new, banking on the public’s insatiable appetite for a spottily recalled but doubtless better past. The musical opened in 1963, when American life was really about to experience a seismic shift. By the time The Beatles made their American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, She Loves Me had already been closed for a month.
She Loves Me had warmly received revivals in 1993 and 2016, each a portentous year in its own way. But the show has always been more of a critics’ darling than a seat-filler. Something about its patient, modest craft makes She Loves Me seem just a little bit unfashionable no matter what decade it is.
Signature Theatre’s faithful new version carries on in that tradition, offering more consolation than innovation. But, as Marlene Dietrich said of her soothsaying act in Touch of Evil, it’s so old it’s new. This tender tale of two clerks at a (demonstrably overstaffed) cosmetics store who spar all day long without knowing each is the other’s lover-by-letter is a total charmer, even if a couple of its busier songs—especially the show’s penultimate number “Twelve Days to Christmas”—make you want to swipe left.
Under Signature honcho Matthew Gardiner’s steady direction, this She Loves Me achieves a welcome intimacy, by which I mean—without any disrespect intended to its fine cast—the fewer performers on stage in any given moment, the more absorbing and resonant the show becomes. The duets (“Three Letters,” “I Don’t Know His Name”) beat the full-cast numbers by miles, and the solo songs (“Dear Friend,” “Vanilla Ice Cream,” “She Loves Me”) are the ones that follow you home.
Ali Ewoldt is the Olympian soprano who, in the leading role of rookie clerk Amalia Balash, crushes the first two of those songs, while Deven Kolluri is nearly as good performing the third. He makes an appealing Georg, the shop’s fastidious second-in-command who comes to discover he has fallen for its latest hire, while their boss (sturdy Lawrence Redmond) suspects Georg of carrying on an affair with his wife.
The numbers that don’t concern Amalia and Georg’s slow-germinating love affair pay variable dividends: Signature regulars Bobby Smith and Maria Rizzo, playing, respectively, long-married and perennially single shop clerks, supply the best of the show’s secondary numbers: “Perspective” (about swallowing whatever indignities one must to remain employed) and “A Trip to the Library.” Rizzo is especially good at reacting comedically to whatever her scene partners are suffering through without pulling focus. But any time we veer too far away from our two bickering lovers, we yearn to get back to them.
In his superb book The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built, critic turned Broadway producer Jack Viertel cites She Loves Me as a brilliantly crafted specimen of the sort of musical that more or less became extinct not long after it first appeared; the show that climaxes not with bombast, but with a modestly ecstatic moment of emotional and musical revelation. The songs “ Vanilla Ice Cream” and “Dear Friend” bleed into one another as Amalia realizes the irritating colleague who brought her dessert and the unseen pen pal with whom she’s been baring her soul are the same man.
Ewoldt, Kolluri, Gardiner, and music director Jon Kalbfleisch’s 10-piece orchestra stick the landing, making this forever-uncool musical seem pretty goddamn hot. Bravo.
She Loves Me, based on Parfumerie by Miklós László, book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and directed by Matthew Gardiner, plays at Signature Theatre through April 24. sigtheatre.org. $40–$96.