So I knew it was going to be good, because of my YGM bias and because the cast was even better than when Broadway forums dream-cast stuff. Man alive, I didn’t know it would be a vegan cream puff of perfection. About that dream cast: Laura Benanti would take the Meg Ryan role, of course, because Laura Benanti is probably the funniest actress there is who is also a sublime soprano. Her Amalia Balash would be edgier than Kathleen Kelly because Laura has the sarcastic deadpan delivery to deadpan all deadpans. Done, amazing, Tony nom guaranteed (and win in any other year). The rest of the cast is where things get interesting. Josh Radnor, the actor behind the much maligned Ted from “How I Met Your Mother” (mostly maligned by me), was initially supposed to play the Tom Hanks role of Georg Novack (spelled like The Sound of Music’s ‘Gay-org’ but just pronounced ‘George’, so why not use the second e huh? Huh?), which is interesting to me because I’ve never heard him sing for real. And also I would just see Ted the whole time and be like UGH YOU SUCK TED STOP WHINING. But luckily, Josh pulled out (so he won’t get preeeeeeeeeeeggggggggggnnnnnnnnaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnttttt) and Broadway favorite (in just two shows!) Zachary Levi (of “Chuck” fame) stepped in. Listen. Several years ago, Zachary starred in “First Date” on Broadway, which wasn’t a great show but he delighted the whole theatre community, which recognized like, oh Broadway does have the potential to have handsome talented Clooney-style leading men. With Robert Fairchild last year, Steven Pasquale, and now Zachary Levi in his greatest performance yet, we’re in like a golden age of Broadway leading men to match the golden age of actual theatre productions we’re also in. (Can we please get Raul back onstage?)
Levi is even more delightful and enthralling and captivating and joyous than he’s ever been before. He really was perfection. Even better than THanks. His big number, the title song (“she LOOOOVES me!”), was the best moment of the night. There was so much damn joy on that stage, even though he was all by himself, and then he did a cartwheel and it was even more joyous. The song itself is wonderful, with its adorable lyrics that Levi played perfectly (my favorite line is “I’m trembling, what the hell does that mean? I’m freezing. That’s because it’s cold out”. He made it hilarious). I was so surprised at how winning his performance was, even as he was sharing the stage with Benanti and the supporting cast that initially was the reason for drawing me in: Jane Krakowski, Gavin Creel, and Michael McGrath. All my <3s! It’s a relentlessly great cast that was only almost outdone by the jaw-dropping set design. Set in a perfumerie like the original story and not in bookstores, “She Loves Me” tells the story of a group of lovable Hungarian perfumerie clerks in the 1930s, selling their wares while developing relationships with each other, as friends, as lovers, and sometimes as haters. Georg and Amalia initially get on each others nerves, like big time, and they caaaan’t staaaand each other. Little do they know that they have been writing love letters to each other through a Lonely Hearts pen pal kind of thing (the old version of online dating I guess). Their letters start with ‘Dear Friend’, which is where YGM gets it!! loved that!
As their relationship grows in starkly different ways in the shop and in their letters, Georg and Amalia are buoyed by a glorious supporting cast having their own excitement. Amalia’s Miss Rhode Island here is Ilona Ritter, played by the hilarious Jane Krakowski. As hilarious as Jane gets to be on television, her role here was more gentle and endearing, probably because, while she had lots of great lines, Laura’s Amalia had all the zingers. Ilona begins the show by having a very imprudent dalliance with fellow clerk Kodaly, a suave and unkind man played by the suave and very kind and very talented Gavin Creel. Their big number is rousing fun and features Jane doing full splits and then being pulled across the stage – still in the split. Pretty impressive! However, at my performance, some crazy loud whirring noise was coming out behind the speakers on the right side wall, like from behind the boxes. They didn’t stop the show, and I wish they would have. Sometimes you have to keep the show going, and it’s not the actors’ call usually, but man I really wish they stopped it because it was so loud for the mezzanine that you couldn’t even hear Gavin sing. I missed his whole number, pretty much. Actually now that I think about it I wish I asked for a free ticket to another performance. Actually now I’m really mad they didn’t stop the show. Stupid whoever is in charge of that. I could see members of the orchestra looking towards the sound and being like ‘wtf is that!’ grrrr anger.
Okay, breathe, let’s breathe, and whoever knows people at Roundabout make sure they get me a free ticket. Moving on. The only strangely downer part in “She Loves Me” comes courtesy of Byron Jenkins’ Dabney Coleman, I’m assuming. As Maraczek, the owner of the perfumerie (named Maraczek’s), Byron is very mean to poor nicest person ever Georg for no good reason, going so far as to fire him at one point. We find out that it was because he suspected Georg of having an affair with his wife, when of course it wasn’t and of course it was the scoundrel employee among them (Kodaly). When Maraczek finds out he was wrong and fired the wrong man, he tries to kill himself. Fortunately we don’t really see it (just some red lights behind closed doors), and fortunately he doesn’t succeed, but damn, that is some jarring, out-of-place drama if I ever saw it. That poor sad multi-millionaire I feel so *sorry* for him. Happily, Mr. Maraczek is (quickly) fine and makes it up to Georg by promising him the store. So that’s quite good.
Then we have the very lovable Michael McGrath in the Dave Chappelle role of Georg’s bestie and confidante. Listen. Dave Chappelle in “You’ve Got Mail” is one of the great cinematic performances of the century. “She gon be a real dog” is #1 on all AFI lists of Most Influential and Important Film Quotes of all time. Say it with me Kanye-style: OF ALL TIME! He was amazing. So for anyone to try to top that performance is a real test. Luckily, this being set in 1930s Hungary and Michael McGrath being a 58-year-old white man, he was directed differently than Dave was. McGrath plays a kind-hearted, decent man who wants everyone to be happy and everything to run smoothly. He also sees early on that Georg and Amalia love each other, even though they think they hate each other. McGrath was so perfect in this role, I am very sad to report that I think I saw his last performance, because he left the show for personal reasons. I don’t think anyone really knows why and I hope he is okay.
In addition to the perfect cast and the perfect score and direction and everything was the set, perhaps my favorite traditional set design ever. Oh my goodness this set had me jumping up and down in my seat in giddiness metaphorically of course because I would never disturb the people around me in a theatre like that even though everyone else who goes to the theatre seems to have no problem disturbing those around them because we live in an age of entitlement and zero manners. The set was so gorgeous, like a little (but giant) toybox that spun around and opened into endless compartments to form all the different rooms of the shop. It was BIG and BEEYOOTIFUL. Like the architectural version of a French pastry on display in a window.
Obviously I have been saving the best for last. Laura Benanti is so wonderful in this. She’s played a lot of supporting characters, and here she gets the chance to really shine as she was meant to. Amalia lets her break out her rarely heard (lately) beautiful soprano voice, hitting high notes and staying up there with that great operatic style that we don’t really get anymore in newer musicals that are all about belting. But she also plays Amalia with a hardness in her that comes out as comedy and is understandable for her character, before she opens herself up to love. Her comic timing is impeccable, and her specific brand of it is different from anything I’ve seen from a musical theatre actress. Some find her sarcasm and cynicism off-putting but, maybe because that’s often my style of comedy, I love it. Amalia’s big famous number, “Vanilla Ice Cream” (what Georg brings her when she’s sick, like when THanks brings Kathleen daisies because they are her favorite flower and she sneezes in the intercom and it’s so funny and then she has her trio of amazing yeses) was indeed beautiful, but my favorite was the extraordinarily silly “Where’s My Shoe?” Some people hate that song because it’s silly, but omg it was so funny and well done. Amalia is trying to get dressed for work and can’t find her shoe. And she jumps around her bed and stuff and it’s just the funniest thing, so well orchestrated.
This year was unparalleled in the quality of musical revivals. Two fantastic ones, “Spring Awakening” and “The Color Purple”, reinvented their original stories in meaningful, effective ways. While “She Loves Me” didn’t do anything similarly revolutionary, this revival was instead a wonderfully traditional version of its show, nothing revelatory except how perfectly it was done. It’s special to have such insanely high quality of both kinds of reviving in the same season.
This is the show where Benanti famously stopped because someone’s phone was ringing. She looked out and said coolly “I’ll wait.” F-ing badass. And because it’s an older traditional show, it does attract the oldies who are typically the worst audience members. Like I said above, the people next to me were f-ing horrible. They weren’t so much old as they were girlfriends excited to be drinking overpriced drinks. Oy. Nothing worse than any other audiences though, really. Side note: Row E in the rearish mezzanine is actually sort of its own front row because there is a break that doesn’t show up on seating charts. So it’s a great seat that happens to be on the cheaper side. Studio 54 (not that one) (is it?) is an enormous cavernous theatre, though, so it all seems far away.
Even though only Zachary Levi came out even though it was a Saturday night and I waited for everrrr, it was still the best stage door experience ever. Just as he did for “First Date”, Levi came out, as he does after every show, with his speakers and turned it into a dance party. He is just so full of joy and gratitude and kindness that it’s infectious and everyone has a gay old time. I hope he stays on Broadway forever. Benanti sent out signed Playbills, which she kindly does very often when she doesn’t sign. Both of them are going beyond the call of duty and it’s really nice.