Love Letters Are Forever
‘Tis the season for family, traditions, and celebrations that bring one back to more innocent times. The sweet scent of nostalgia can nourish the most troubled soul. And I can’t think of a better place to rekindle that holiday spirit than joining the perfume and cosmetics shoppers at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in 1934 Budapest, Hungary.
Happily, our time travel escapade precludes the hassle of long airport lines and overbooked flights. An easy trip along I-95 to Delray Beach (a beautiful, old-Florida-style destination on its own) — and to the Delray Beach Playhouse — is all one needs. This hidden gem of a theater on Lake Ida – “Florida historic,” as it was established in 1947 – is now featuring what’s been described as one of the most charming musical comedies ever to hit Broadway. Written by Joe Masterof with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (the duo behind “Fiddler”), SHE LOVES ME was nominated for five Tonys in 1964 and continues to enjoy multiple, award-winning revivals, including a Tony (against “Hamilton”!) for Best Scenic Design in 2016.
Personally, I feel this sweet, intimate yet complicated love story is ideally suited for our charmingly sized-just-right Delray Beach Playhouse where we can see the actors’ every expression. They perform on a high and wide stage, where a multi-level and rotating set (my compliments to scenic designer/artist Cindi Blank Taylor and master carpenter Jeff Davis) also easily accommodates major song-and-dance numbers by the play’s talented, 17-member cast. There was not a single missed beat (or step), as highly experienced and acclaimed local dynamo Michael Ursua served as the play’s director/musical director.
The curtain rises and we’re transported to 1930s Budapest on a lovely June morning. We watch sales staff arrive at the elegant, Art Nouveau-inspired Maraczek’s Parfumerie shop, where they congregate on the sidewalk before the owner unlocks the door and lets them in. Like many of us, they dream of ditching the daily grind of their cosmetics-counter posts for an impromptu fresh-air holiday, but their need for job security prevails. The genial, yet formal friendliness of the shop’s five employees is in full display as they greet one another in the play’s opening number, “Good Morning, Good Day.”
Amanda Lopez and Shalia Sakona star as perfume clerks and confidants, Illona and
Amalia, in Delray Beach Playhouse’s exuberant revival of SHE LOVES ME. Only
playing through December 10.
Once they enter, more of the dynamics (hidden and blatant) among what will soon become six employees, and the shop owner, are revealed. Like many small businesses since time immemorial, these characters harbor distinct alliances, love interests, jealousies, resentments, ambitions and dreams … all of which serve as gist for entertaining in-house drama.
Here’s the primary cast line up, in order of appearance. Ladislav Sipos (Alan Goodman) is the most senior (in age) clerk who has family issues and fears being replaced by someone younger and more energetic. The youngest company hire of two years, Arpad (Kole Rosin), plays the role of delivery boy on his beloved, vintage (to us) bicycle. He’s a bright, not-yet-of-drinking-age teen with starry-eyed visions of his future at the company, but also a competent team player. Except for the two women, who quickly become confidants and friends, the staff address one another by their surnames. Only Arpad is called by his first name (and is over the moon when promoted to part-time clerk, and so addressed as “Mr. Laszlo,” at the end).
Sexy, gossiped about, 30-something Illona Ritter (Amanda Lopez) who’s been having a not-so-secret affair with fellow clerk and player Steven Kodaly (Alexander Blanco) gives too many chances to her neglectful, cheating lover. Until she resolves to ditch him forever and immediately meets a bespectacled optometrist at her first visit to the local library. This nerdy, good guy enjoys reading aloud to her and so Illona happily reflects: “As long as he loves to read, there’s a good chance I never need to open a book.” She declares he’ll propose on their next date.
And then there’s shy, assistant-manager Georg Nowack (Bob Ruggles) who comprises the male half of the “She Loves Me” match made in letters. Yes, Georg has fallen head- over-heels for an unnamed and unpictured pen pal who’d responded to his “Lonely Hearts Club” advert in the newspaper.
Unbeknownst to him, or anyone else, his anonymous love interest is none other than the parfumerie’s newest employee, Amalia Balash (Shalia Sakona). Amalia impresses store owner Mr. Maraczek (Louis Silvers) with her spunk and innovative sales skills by promoting a musical cigarette case that no one else can sell, despite its hyped ability to “make music lovers out of smokers and smokers out of music lovers.” Amalia recasts the case as a candy box for dieters that musically alerts them to avoid temptation. Or, as she puts it: “The Music Box sings ‘No more candy’ in your ear. Just like the Face of God.” It becomes an instant best seller and she’s hired on the spot.
Sparks fly between Georg and Amalia, and while others around them might recognize the underlying attraction, these two conclude they are sparks of hate. So while fighting and putting each other down in real life, intense soul-baring letters (“Three Letters”) between the clueless pen pals — including sharing favorite books — continue through the seasons. The year’s progression is whimsically presented by a scattering of fallen leaves for autumn, and handfuls of sparkly white snow flakes in winter.
Weather-appropriate 1930’s dress, coats and mufflers, appear and disappear, with the changing scenes – a retro fashion parade pleasure on its own, thanks to Penny Williams’ exquisite costume design. There’s even a display of Jazz Age spangled attire at the rich-burgundy curtained and candlelit-tabled lovers’ rendezvous eatery, Cafe Imperiale. Here, once again, I’d like to recognize the talent of scenic designer Cindi Blank Taylor along with technical director Andre Lancaster, lighting designer Larry Oberman and sound operator Glen Rovinelli.
Despite boasting a great multi-dimensional storyline, this is still a musical wherein all the main characters are given at least one vocal solo to shine, in songs you might recognize. Because, like many musicals of yore, “She Loves Me”’s songs went on to become popular hits of their day and tend to stay with you. Mr. Maraczek’s ode to freewheeling bachelorhood in “Days Gone By,” Amalia’s heartfelt “Dear Friend” correspondence, and the insanely hilarious “Where’s My Shoe,” followed by the emotional turning point of “He brought me ice cream, Vanilla Ice Cream” are but a few striking examples.
Of course, there’s Georg’s rendition of eponymous “She Loves Me” that’s both sweet and funny. Remember the lines: “She loves me, True she doesn’t show it. How could she, When she doesn’t know it.”? And just in time for the season, we end with the ever-increasingly-frantic (an impressive test of speed and timing that left me breathless, and I was just watching!) “Twelve Days to Christmas” featuring carolers, customers, clerks … in short, the entire cast. And a perfect time to recognize all the nimble supporting actors who sing, dance and make frequent appearances as store customers or cafe diners. All beautifully presented thanks to the expertise of busy, widely celebrated choreographer Alex Jorth. With not a hair out of super-coiffed place, thanks to principle wig design by Justin Lore, with additional wig design and maintenance by Britte Steele.
Mia Jeannie Rubin — who first appears as a clumsy, tray-crashing busser — proceeds to shock us with the precision of her gymnastic dance moves. Daniel Sanchez personifies the fussy Headwaiter. Additional townsfolk who believably round out the various scenes, and are always dressed the part, are Matthew Schenk as Keller, 1st Customer J. B. Wing, 2nd Customer Elizabeth Robinson, 3rd Customer Heidi M. Salonia, 4th Customer Devra Seidel, and 5th Customer Megan Deford.
Don’t miss this gem of a classic musical that will warm your heart with its endearing innocence, old-world elegance and happy (or suitable comeuppance) conclusion. Playing now through December 10 at The Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th Street, Delray Beach 33444. For tickets and more information, head to delraybeachplayhouse.com. Or call 561-272-1281.