Unless you’re a fanatic with money to burn, you’ve most likely heard your favorite musicals more than you’ve seen them. Many a Cats fancier never made it to the Winter Garden to pet the kitties, and at about $20, the original cast album of Hamilton goes for a fiftieth of the price of a typical resale ticket. The disparity between live and recorded experience is even greater for cult shows and succès d’estime. I’ve seen She Loves Me, that nearly perfect 1963 jewel box, only four times — it’s not often done professionally — but have listened to the sublime OCR over and over for years. In some ways I know its voice better than I know my own, having learned to hear the world, in part, through its witty, melancholy, and whipped-cream accents. There’s a danger, though, in absorbing a show that way: It can seem to exist most vividly in the inches between your ears. Watching it onstage may thus come to feel like watching home movies, never quite as immediate as what you remembered or wanted. But there’s a boon as well. When a production has enough outstanding elements working in its favor — as the Roundabout’s revival of She Loves Me starring Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi certainly does — your mind can fill in the rest, and more.
Benanti, with her thrilling voice and zany self-deprecation, is perfect casting for Amalia Balash, a young woman in 1934 Budapest whose romantic ideals are so overblown that only an imaginary beau can meet them. By day, she works as a clerk at Maraczek’s Parfumerie, sparring with fellow clerk Georg Nowack (Levi), a man she instantly finds officious and rude. By night she dreams of Dear Friend, so called because she knows him only through the exchange of high-minded letters they’ve been sharing since she discovered his lonely hearts ad. (Among their epistolary topics, one lyric puts it, are “Dumas, Ducas, Dufy, Dufay, Defoe.”) It does not give much away to reveal that Georg and Dear Friend are one and the same, but She Loves Me is structured to withhold that information from Amalia until the final curtain. She must learn that high-mindedness is a kind of rudeness too, a way of rejecting the world preemptively.
If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because the source material, Miklós László’s Parfumerie, has also been turned into the films The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail. But Joe Masteroff’s book for She Loves Me, one of the last and best of the Golden Age, outdoes all of them, managing to hew closely to the theme of romantic misprision without cutesiness on one hand or, on the other, the hard focus of the concept musical (a form Masteroff would help invent, with Cabaret, three years later). Amalia and Georg are offered up colorfully but flatteringly, like the wares at Maraczek’s, in a velvet-lined case of supporting characters. Maraczek himself is a nostalgic fantasist, remembering his youthful virility in “Days Gone By” (his Viennese waltz number) but missing the signals of trouble in his marriage. Amalia’s opposite is Ilona Ritter, a good-time gal not having a very good time with Steven Kodaly, the shop’s oily Lothario. For another clerk, Ladislav Sipos, marriage has rendered romance a dead letter. And messenger boy Arpad Laszlo just wants a grown-up job (and a mustache). Each gets a song or two, all of which, in mostly comic terms, pin them to the plot while providing a feeling of richness, if not schmaltz, to the show’s texture. Most classic musicals have a so-called charm song; She Loves Me has nothing but.
Unlike other charm songs, though, the ones in She Loves Me are completely specific. Plot-nailing titles include “Vanilla Ice Cream,” “No More Candy,” “Tonight at Eight,” “A Trip to the Library,” and “Where’s My Shoe?” Their lyrics, by Sheldon Harnick, marry gentle wit to character development with the highest technical polish; his rhymes get laughs not because they’re tricky but because they’re so apt. (In “I Don’t Know His Name,” Amalia sings: “When I undertook this correspondence, little did I know I’d grow so fond; little did I know our views would so correspond.”) These nearly prose observations miraculously sit on music, by Jerry Bock, that maintains their contours while flowering into arias of enormous beauty, especially for Amalia, who has a heavy stack of them to sell. This is where Benanti’s gifts become crucial. She is, no surprise, a joy to listen to — even when, as last night, recovering from bronchitis. But she brings to the job of making beautiful sounds the natural comic’s instinct of opening herself to heartbreak.
The rest of the cast is nearly at her level. Levi, known mostly from the title role on the TV show Chuck, successfully navigates Georg’s tricky arc. You can see in him the traits that Amalia would misunderstand and disdain, but also the yearning that makes the revelation pay off. (He even does a cartwheel while singing, very well, the title song.) As Ilona, Jane Krakowski offers a welcome variation on her 30 Rock character: a woman perhaps as dim as Jenna Maroney but almost completely unjaded. Among the other employees of Maraczek’s I especially enjoyed Michael McGrath’s Ladislav, making that potentially dour character sprightly instead.
But for all those ways in which the production succeeds, there are elements I found I had to compensate for in my imagination. Though the director Scott Ellis, who also directed the Roundabout’s earlier revival of She Loves Me, in 1993, keeps the story moving swiftly and brightly, I couldn’t help wishing it were a little less bright. David Rockwell’s Art Nouveau sets in Easter pastels and Donald Holder’s lighting could have been turned down a few notches; this is comedy, yes, but not farce, and a feeling of faint mistrust wafts off the stage. Similarly, the costumes (by Jeff Mahshie) and the choreography (by Warren Carlyle) both flirt with vulgarity. Krakowski at one point wears a dress slit to let her show off her splits — and, apparently, her ass. (Both are impressive, though.)
The production’s most serious deficiency is harder to brush off: The orchestration for 21 players has been reduced to 14. This is, admittedly, quite an improvement over the 1993 orchestration for eight; much of the music in that production was synthesized. But for a show steeped in Mitteleuropean richness, with waltzes, tangos, Lisztian rhapsodies, and Straussian color, the loss of four string players, two French horns, and a trombone is disproportionately damaging. The resulting sound is sometimes thin or coarse. It’s hard to blame the Roundabout; She Loves Me is not South Pacific or The King and I, revivals with enough commercial appeal to let Lincoln Center Theatre splurge on the original complement of players. (In the case of South Pacific, that meant 30 in the pit; Studio 54 doesn’t even have a pit.) And the excellent musical direction of Paul Gemignani makes the most of the band he’s got. For a longtime listener of the ORC, the opening violin cadenza and trumpet trill still set off a Pavlovian thrill reflex. But something is missing; or is that just another romantic ideal needing to be knocked back to reality? If so, She Loves Me is the show to do it. Listen with your imagination, and succumb to the ravishment.
She Loves Me is at Studio 54 through June 5.