Considering we're in a seemingly never-ending political season, theaters across the country have programmed plays and musicals that capitalize on themes of American politics and elections, such as 1776 or David Mamet's November. But Stage West, which has not shied away from politics in the past, has done everyone suffering from election anxiety (read: every person in America) an enormous favor and opened its new season with the 1963 musical She Loves Me.
When the season was announced, it felt like an odd choice for Stage West, which has usually gone with something more contemporary or offbeat when fitting a musical into the season, which is not every season. But now it makes perfect sense: In reviving an utterly charming and optimistic gem, director Jim Covault and his cast are doing their part to help us all chill out. If you needed to escape from election news, this is how to do it.
The show, with music by Jerry Bock, book by Joe Masteroff and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (collectively, their musicals include Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret), is based on Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie, which also inspired the movies The Shop Around the Corner and You've Got Mail , among others. Set in a 1930s Budapest perfume shop, it gives a glimpse into a fantasy world where retail employees sing "thank you" and "come again soon" to their customers. And it also gives each of its seven named characters (not to mention Waiter, played by Peter DiCesare) at least one song; and that's not including the ensemble material.
With a cast of 16, it's a lot for this stage, but Covault and scenic designer Jason Domm make it fit. And what's this? An offstage music combo at a small theater that doesn't sound like a muffled afterthought? From a perch above the set on stage right, and in view of the audience, musical director/pianist Aimee Hurst Bozarth leads three other musicians (Rebecca Rathbun, violin; Rex Bozarth, double bass; and Joey Carter, percussion) and works in seamless tandem with the action onstage.
As central couple Georg and Amalia, who don't acknowledge their love for each other until the end, Cameron McElyea and Alison Hodgson make a convincing, alchemic argument for love/hate that transforms into undeniable love. We also get lovely vocal performances and character work from Brian Mathis as Ladislav, Chelsea Coyne as Ilona and Scott Sutton as Kodaly (all work in the shop). Jerry Russell plays shop owner Mr. Maraczek, and Joseph Keith Wilson is delivery boy-turned-clerk Arpad, both winning performances.
And how about Harnick's lyrics in songs like Ice Cream, A Trip to the Library and She Loves Me? Charming, uplifting and cynicism-free. If only such wonders would never cease, especially during contentious election cycles.