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Photo Caption: A la Betty Boop and Jiminy Cricket: (l-r) Jessica Stone and Mark Nelson in She Loves Me.

Photo: T Charles Erickson

Fresh Delight

By Ralph Hammann

She Loves Me

By Joe Masterhoff, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, directed by Nicholas Martin

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through July 12

At Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of She Loves Me, I heard something that I haven’t heard in the past three years at WTF: applause at the revelation of the set. Its various elements rolled or flew into the massive portal of the hitherto problematic main stage.

If you are one of the many who lost faith in WTF over the past three years—if you felt that you’d never again feel the awe of being consumed by a total theatrical world—then I beg you to return to the theater for She Loves Me.

Director Nicholas Martin, who is also WTF’s new artistic director, and James Noone, his set designer of choice, have wrought the near-impossible in filling the void in that unforgiving space.

To begin, they have raised the working height of the proscenium to its full, majestic height. Thus the space, with its compromised sightlines, fragmented seating and distracting light wood, now has a massive attraction to still the distractions: a stage with a proscenium opening that dominates all else.

Noone fills it so gloriously, yet tastefully, that the scenery befits grand opera. His set (which incorporates the showroom, backroom and exterior of a 1934 parfumerie in Budapest, as well as an elegant restaurant, hospital and gabled apartment) is so perfect in its intricate details and so transporting in its changing moods and atmospheres that it deserves a review unto itself. As it happens, both the set and the intelligent lighting by Kenneth Posner and Phillip Rosenberg are representative of everything that Martin puts on the stage, from Robert Morgan’s richly hued costumes to the nonpareil cast of colorful characters who wear them.

Based on the play by Miklos Laszlo, She Loves Me tells the deceptively simple story of Georg and Amalia, two people who don’t realize they are in love with each other, but who have been falling in love through letters that they exchange anonymously. When Amalia comes to work at the same store that Georg manages, the stage is set for a comedy that is charming, farcical, heartfelt, bittersweet and, finally, joyous.

If Martin’s actors are all supremely and spontaneously at home in their characters, they are also delightfully alive in Denis Jones’ dances, thanks to some of the most inventively humorous and exuberant choreography I’ve seen anywhere. None is so wonderful as that at the Café Imperiale, where more than a smattering of Weimar decadence makes its way from Germany into Budapest—courtesy of generously revealed thighs, loaded sighs, the subtlest hints of S&M, and a schnitzel of couplings that hark back to Schintzler’s La Ronde.

At first, Jessica Stone’s brash nasality seems more appropriate to a Brooklyn deli, but she soon overcomes the Betty Boop beginnings and creates, of the hapless-in-love Ilona, a character who becomes dimensional and knockabout funny. As her foil, Troy Britton Johnson has just enough Robert Preston-like grace to make us enjoy Steven Kodaly even at his smarmiest—truly a cad one can love.

Lending helpful old-world charm and dignity, wonderful character actor Dick Latessa expertly bakes the crusty Maraczek so that his marzipan center can be savored through his drier layers. As the most self-effacing of clerks, Ladislav Sipos, Mark Nelson is a quietly endearing Jiminy Cricket who illuminates the shadows of the background where Sipos is content to remain.

With a face for which smiling seems an inevitable state, Kate Baldwin sparkles as Amalia and enchants with every song. However, what I like most about her nuanced portrayal is her unexpected kookiness. Coupled with a game sense of physical humor, which is expertly timed and knows its bounds, her revelation of Amalia’s inner clown makes her truly irresistible.

A first glance, Brooks Ashmanskas’ Georg appears rather like marshmallow: soft, pleasant, insubstantial, and easily forgotten. But trust me, you will not forget Ashmanskas and his utterly beguiling, totally inhabited and empathetically triumphant performance of a man who is finding his own heart as he wins that of another. He makes this seemingly gentle romantic comedy a veritable thrill ride, and when Georg reaches his epiphany it is very nearly the romantic musical comedy equivalent of Sweeney Todd’s transformative “Epiphany.”

The musical direction by Charlie Alterman is exquisite. Under his rapt baton, a large orchestra, seated high above the curved parfumerie, is—literally and figuratively—the icing on the cake.

 


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