- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

Text messaging and Internet flirting have not changed the circuits of the heart. We still long for a soul mate who knows us first on the inside, whose thoughts and dreams match our own as closely as fingerprints.

This urge to merge is expressed tenderly in the old-fashioned, melodic 1963 musical “She Loves Me,” adapted by Joe Masteroff (“Cabaret”) from Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo’s play, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, who also collaborated on a little show called “Fiddler on the Roof.”

This story of seemingly immiscible sweethearts finally getting together has proved potent through the years, inspiring the movies “The Shop Around the Corner” with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, “In the Good Old Summertime” with Judy Garland and “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

In Arena’s flowery and romantic production set in a perfume shop in Budapest in the 1930s, director Kyle Donnelly does not try to impose a new aesthetic on the musical or make it culturally relevant — no lecture, for example, on the impact of cologne atomizers on the ozone layer.

“She Loves Me” is a retail soap opera, with the various employees of Maraczek’s shop in the throes of various types of love. Cashier Ilona Ritter (Nancy Lemenager) is the easy mark, always falling for the wrong men, most notably salesclerk Steven Kodaly (Sebastian La Cause), the charmingly smarmy town Casanova whose little black book needs an appendix.

Messenger boy Arpad Laszlo (the excellent Clifton Guterman) suffers from adolescent crushes, while Mr. Maraczek (Hal Robinson) is crushed by the news that his dear wife is having an affair.

The main attraction is the non-attraction between employees Amalia Balash (Brynn O’Malley) and Georg Nowack (Kevin Kraft), who go together like Chanel No. 5 and Old Spice. They clash at work but are simpatico between the sheets — of paper, that is. Knowing each other only under the pen name of “Dear Friend,” Amalia and Georg are carrying on an epistolary affair of the heart.

Rather than fiddle with “She Loves Me,” Miss Donnelly taps into its enduring vitality with young, new talent and a smattering of old pros. To the role of the bookish heroine Amalia, Miss O’Malley brings both a shimmering soprano and an assertive spunk that is a tad abrasive in the early scenes.

You warm up to her in the second act, as Amalia valiantly struggles to remain upbeat at the schmaltzily romantic Cafe Splendide, where she waits for “Dear Friend” to show up for their first face-to-face encounter. By the time she sings the soaring “Vanilla Ice Cream,” in which Amalia is thunderstruck by the idea that she’s falling for Georg, you are smitten.

Mr. Kraft proves a worthy suitor, equally defensive and touchy in the first act before letting his guard down so you can see he’s a decent, deep-feeling fellow. His wide-legged prancing dance steps and overall ebullience in the title number, “She Loves Me,” put you in mind of Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Together, the two don’t generate as many sparks as might be hoped.

The heat index goes up when Miss Lemenager’s Ilona and Mr. La Cause’s Steven share the stage. She’s a pushover; he’s a lounge lizard — a match made in musical-theater heaven. Their scenes together tingle with erotic promise, but they also are spectacular in their solos — especially Miss Lemenager’s fierce kiss-off to being a doormat, “I Resolve.” Mr. La Cause possesses that catnip sexuality throughout but really lets loose in “Grand Knowing You,” in which falsetto sweeps betray his wicked, unrepentant heart.

J. Fred Shiffman contributes a comically louche performance as a headwaiter determined to keep love alive in “A Romantic Atmosphere,” and Mr. Robinson is affecting as the demanding and distraught shop owner.

An intimate musical like “She Loves Me” cries out for a smaller space, but designer Kate Edmunds tries to cozy things up with a jewel-box set, and costumer designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ impeccably tailored, vibrant costumes bring the 1930s to life with Old World elegance.

“She Loves Me” is old school in the best sense, in which songs convey character and lightly push the plot to a satisfying ending that takes place on that giddiest of days, Christmas Eve.

Who could ask for a better-wrapped package?

***

WHAT: “She Loves Me,” book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, selected noon matinees weekdays. Through Dec. 31.

TICKETS: $55 to $74

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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