NEW YORK – “She Loves Me” is a perfect revival of a ’60s musical and so far it’s the only good song-and-dance show to hit Broadway this spring.
When it first opened in 1963 it was not a blockbuster, but over the years it has evolved and grown into a show with great popularity. It is at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 on West 54th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
“She Loves Me” is a romantic musical about a boy and girl who fall in love via mail. It was written by Joe Masteroff in an operetta style without coyness, from Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 Hungarian comedy “Parfumerie.” That play has been the basis of several popular movies: “The Shop Around the Corner,” starring Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart, still holds up as a brilliant film; “In the Good Old Summertime” is an O.K. musical with Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and “You’ve Got Mail,” a 1998 take starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
What has always made “She Loves Me” appealing is the late Jerry Bock’s soaring music and Sheldon Harnick’s infectious bright and witty lyrics. A few years before they collaborated on “She Loves Me,” Mr. Bock and Mr. Harnick had won a Pulitzer Prize for “Fiorello.” The next season, in 1964, their “Fiddler on the Roof” opened; it is also being revived this year and is a couple of blocks away at the Broadway Theatre.
“She Loves Me” seems to have been written with affection and without strain, resulting in songs in the mood of an old-fashioned valentine. The setting is Budapest in 1934 from June until Christmas. The numbers aren’t radically new or different, but they turn out to be classic, vintage work of that Broadway era. The composers have followed a conventional pattern, and even have found a way to get a good waltz in, which is fair enough because they have composed what Mr. Masteroff insists happened in Hungary at that time.
Director Scott Ellis is familiar with the show; he staged it years ago at Roundabout and also in a recent concert version. He guides the musical wisely, balancing between sweet and sentiment and jaunty comedy scenes.
Mr. Ellis has assembled a cast of accomplished musical theater charmers. Laura Benanti plays Amalia Balash and is one of the few leading ladies who can really sing. She also acts the role in the sweetly shy, romantic way of a woman who is being wooed and wooing.
In the original version of the show, Julie Andrews was envisioned for the role, but she was busy making a movie so another stalwart ingénue, Barbara Cook, was chosen.
The anonymous hero of Ms. Balash’s letters is the slightly pompous clerk Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi). He sings pleasantly and, once the comedy gets moving, he lights up the stage with his attractive personality.
Jane Krakowski is Ilona Ritter, a pretty, funny, disillusioned saleswoman at Maraczek’s Parfumerie. Ms. Krakowski won a Tony in a revival of “Nine” but is best known as Jenna Maroney in the television series “30 Rock.” Here she loses her heart to the store’s cad, Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), who plays the role with false charm that could fool any lady of 30 in the ’30s. She wisely drops him for a bespectacled librarian.
Michael McGrath, a fine comedian, is another store salesman, Ladislav Sipos, who has an amusing song, “Perspective,” and manages to work things out in his own interest.
Mr. Masteroff keeps his hero and heroine in combat much of the time before they find one another, which, of course, is customary in these kinds of musicals. Going through all these romantic trials, Ms. Benanti behaves with simple honesty and innocence as if she believed in this fable.
At the end of the first act, in the Cafe Imperiale, where she is supposed to meet her anonymous letter-writer, Ms. Benanti has one of her best moments. She has been sitting in the cafe for two hours waiting for the date to appear. By arrangement, she has a copy of Anna Karenina with a rose as a bookmark. She has been harassed by Georg, who finally arrives and who is too confused to let her know he is the man. He leaves and she is alone when she sings an exquisite song, “Dear Friend.” Ms. Benanti acts it and sings it very simply and very honestly, and makes that moment touching, as it should be.
There is fine choreography by Warren Carlyle, who keeps the cast in rhythmic motion and at the Cafe Imperiale he stages a terrific tango sequence led by dancer Michael Fatica. David Rockwell’s sets are full of atmosphere, especially Mr. Maracizek’s gorgeous eye-catching Parfumerie. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes catch the color of the Budapest period as does Donald Holder’s lighting. Music director Paul Gemignani executes the right orchestral pace for the show’s beautiful score.
“She Loves Me” is steadily enjoyable. Pity there aren’t more shows like it.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.