SHE LOVES ME Nicholas Martin’s Huntington farewell has “A Romantic Atmosphere.”
Before there was eHarmony, there were harmony and disharmony, and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick make hay of both in the evanescent 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me (presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre through June 15). You know the drill from the show’s Internet-era edition, the film You’ve Got Mail, not to mention from the 1940 Jimmy Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner and the 1949 Judy Garland vehicle In the Good Old Summertime, all, like She Loves Me, drawn from Hungarian-born playwright Miklós László’s 1937 play Illatszertár, or Parfumerie. It’s clear László had a marketable idea in his pair of lonely hearts who, when not pouring their feelings into anonymous epistolary amore, work in the same shop and can’t stand each other.
Joe Masteroff’s book for She Loves Me hews to the original setting and period, Budapest in the 1930s (when cigarettes were kept in music boxes rather than relegated to the street), and it’s bolstered by the ebullient, Eastern European–accented score by the Fiddler on the Roof team of Bock and Harnick. The show wasn’t a huge hit in 1963, but original star Barbara Cook is still dining out on the Toscanini’s-worthy ditty “Vanilla Ice Cream.” And a 1993 Scott Ellis–directed Broadway revival reminded folks of the musical’s considerable charm. Now outgoing Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Nicholas Martin makes it his sweet, antic swan song — one that will also serve as his “Good Morning, Good Day” to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he takes the artistic reins this summer.
It’s clear that Martin, who entered his Huntington tenure by filling the orchestra pit with water for a splashing Dead End, didn’t want to go out on a sour or anticlimactic note. He would appear to have shaken the Huntington piggy bank vigorously for this lavish if whimsical staging with 13-person orchestra floating above it like a blue heaven. Set designer James Noone provides the tall, revolving and dissolving parfumerie and environs, Robert Morgan the comically vivid yet well-tooled threads. Musical director Charlie Alterman conducts the able musicians on high. And Martin has cast the show to emphasize its dance of nervous romance and old-fashioned musical-comedy shtick, the latter provided not just by the appealing second and third bananas but by unlikely leading man Brooks Ashmanskas, a talented Nathan Lane–alike with a rubber baby face, a lovably awkward air, and a physical dexterity that turns the title tune into one giddy and gratifying caper.
The production, with its rhythmic replication of the daily traffic, tribulations, and tedium of the high-end soap trade, starts a tad slowly. But it soon picks up, the metronomic “Sounds While Selling” giving way to the merry melancholy of shop owner Mr. Maraczek’s reminiscence of his bachelor “Days Gone By,” a tune delivered with seasoned spryness by Tony-winning old pro Dick Latessa. By the time Kate Baldwin’s sparkling-eyed Amalia seats herself on the apron to launch a “Will He Like Me?” that, as she eases the throttle, bursts into full melodious flight, the audience is in heaven like the band.
Of course, She Loves Me is not all about the snowballing misunderstanding between bookish pen pals and workplace spatters Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash. There is a late-life marital impasse for irascible Mr. Maraczek, a career opportunity for bicycling delivery boy Arpad Laszlo, and a lesson to be learned by sexual pushover Ilona Ritter from her interactions with fellow clerk Stephen Kodaly, a seductive lech with a dangerous yen to stir multiple pots.
At the Huntington, all these little dramas are enacted with a combination of airy innocence and musical-comedic flair. Jeremy Beck is an eager Arpad, pulling off a flying angel on the seat of his bike and jumping high hospital beds in his bravura cosmetics clerk’s audition, “Try Me.” Mark Nelson brings a warmhearted pragmatism to Ladislav Sipos, who’ll bend any which way rather than be out of a job. And as trysting, sniping second couple Ilona and Stephen, wide-eyed Jessica Stone and preening Troy Britton Johnson avoid falling over into desperate-bimbo and Latin-lover cartoon. Stone’s enthused delivery of the novelty love song “A Trip to the Library” (where she finally meets a decent guy) is not only funny but also touching.
The small ensemble, too, has its moment to shine — in the show’s only real production number, the supper-club-set “A Romantic Atmosphere.” In this Hello, Dolly!-worthy singing-and-dancing restaurant outing, the glowering head waiter played by Marc Vietor nimbly tyrannizes Jason Babinsky’s tray-dropping busboy amid a slinky horde of rendezvousing vamps and swains wittily and precisely deployed by choreographer Denis Jones.
To judge by the program notes, Martin’s aim — not so different from that of Georg and Amalia — is to make us fall in love with something we didn’t know we knew or hadn’t fully appreciated. In fact, though She Loves Me lacks the name and tune recognition of South Pacific, it is fondly, sometimes fanatically, regarded by musical theater aficionados. But even if Martin is pitching frozen treats to the Good Humor Man, this big sweet scoop of a revival goes down as easily as “Vanilla Ice Cream.”