When a planned assignation between warring perfumery clerks Georg and Amalia fails to go off as planned--the two, you see, have been exchanging anonymous mash notes without realizing they are corresponding with one another--this show takes an unexpected and hilarious detour. Before the audience knows what has hit it, business devolves into a storm of bawdy tango dancing, intricate slapstick, and almost too much visual humor for the eye to absorb. The scene is emblematic of this enveloping diversion of a musical, which depicts a plot with about as much lasting power as a mist of bottled fragrance, but does so with pleasing sophistication and an abundance of wit.
The action takes place in an unnamed city in the 1930s (let's name it, shall we: Budapest), and the musical itself premiered on Broadway in 1963. James Youmans's set design evokes Eastern European romance by framing the stage in architectural sketches while infusing interiors with an old-world humility. Maraczek's, the shop where much of the action takes place, is a cushiony pastel dreamland in which the pampered customers pass through, blissfully ignorant of the machinations taking place under their noses.
On opening night the cast took some time to find their feet, and the action and music were a little thin at first, but things soon came together. Lee Mark Nelson plays Georg with stumbling shyness that he nicely converts into clumsy glee and, especially, crafty amusement once he realizes that his workplace nemesis is actually the anonymous lover for whom he has been pining. Garrett Long as Amalia is winsome and delicate, capturing the despair of a woman of the era whose marriage prospects are dwindling. Long's performance at times flashes on a heartbreaking sadness.
Neither Nelson nor Long lays waste to the stage with turns of vocal virtuosity, which is a happy consequence of how the show is structured. There are no belt-'em-out numbers or overreaching orchestral crescendos, and no get-your-money's-worth applause moments with the cast gasping for breath after their Herculean exertions. Instead, the plot meanders toward its transparently happy ending while along the way granting nearly every member of the cast a solo song or a moment in which to deepen his or her character.
Director John Miller-Stephany's cast is polished and deep. While my only substantial criticism of the show is that it probably contains a couple of superfluous characters and songs, it's also easy to see why composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick added extra layers: They were on a roll, populating an inconsequential world with funny and knowing personalities that rarely descend into tiresomeness. Bradley Greenwald's preposterously mustachioed Headwaiter and Christopher Carl's absurdly dashing ladies' man Kodaly in particular bring a sense of goofy fun to the evening. She Loves Me is a trifle, and it doesn't care who knows it. This is a show that implores you not to take it seriously and maintains its off-kilter dignity like an elegant old cat while still maintaining a kittenish desire to please.