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