More than 80 years ago, Hungary’s most famous playwright not named Ferenc Molnar wrote a little comedy called Parfumerie, all about a fancy cosmetic shop and the clerks who work there. Featuring one of the most adorable pairs of battling sweethearts since Beatrice met Benedict, Miklós László’s charming classic has been adapted many times, first as Ernst Lubitsch’s immortal The Shop around the Corner, and later as vehicles for Major Movie Stars like Judy Garland and Tom Hanks (not in the same movie, of course.)
In 1963, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick turned their hands toward adapting the play. The result, She Loves Me, competed for a Tony with the likes of Hello Dolly, Funny Girl, and Noel Coward’s High Spirits (surely a high point of Broadway’s Golden Age). Since then, Bock and Harnick’s musical has itself become a classic, and now it is playing on a tiny stage in a miniscule theater on a quiet side street in Edgewater.
And, oh … it is lovely.
Among the glories of Chicago theater are the regular flashes of brilliance that happen in our storefront theater scene, and the Blank Theatre’s current production at the Reginald Vaughn Theater is a particularly bright flare. Company co-founder Danny Kapinos’ deft direction uses the small stage to its fullest advantage, crafting an intimate show that plays like a music box, with the performers revolving around each other to produce a delightful melody.
Perhaps the chief joy in watching this production is seeing such a well-crafted story so expertly played … and so beautifully sung. Brandy Miller, who plays Amalia Balash (one half of the show’s squabbling lovebirds) possesses a sparkling soprano that evokes Barbara Cook (the role’s originator). Like Cook, Miller’s voice is by turns crystalline, then warm in American Songbook standards like “Dear Friend” and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” making her character both ethereal and loveable.
Korey White, who plays the show’s resident cad Steven Kodaly, is another masterful singer. In the role of a consummate heel, White’s soaring tenor makes you forgive—almost—everything rotten his oleaginous character has done. Easily handling both seduction (in the gorgeously sung “Ilona”) and defiance (the ultimate kiss-off “Grand Knowing You”), White can both belt and croon. Indeed, you don’t know whether to hiss or applaud.
Austin Winter is sweetly appealing as Georg Nowack, the object of Balash’s dual scorn and affection. While Winter’s light tenor lacks the power of Miller’s voice, Winter’s winsome performance has the audience rooting for Nowack right from the opening number, “Good Morning.”
There is almost too much praise to go around for this talented cast. Mike Weaver (as shop owner Zoltan Maraczek) and Blank Theatre cofounder Aaron Mann (as Nowack’s best friend Ladislav Sipos) bring an easy, almost effortless, skill to their performances. Ensemble members Gabrielle Bieder, Laura Dellis and Karilyn Veres sound wonderful and look great in costume designer Cindy Moon’s impeccable fashions. (Indeed, I encourage the entire cast to take their stunning costumes home at the end of the show’s run—they could scarcely find clothes more beautiful.) And Jonah Cochin, in the unpromisingly named role of “Head Waiter” almost stops the show with his astounding tenor in his solo, “A Romantic Atmosphere.” (This is a show where everyone gets at least one song.)
But now, a few words about my two secret favorites: Rachel Guth as second female lead Ilona Ritter and ensemble member Bryce Ancil as delivery boy Arpad Laszlo—both natural comics, gorgeous singers and absolute audience darlings.
The role of Ilona is a juicy one: illiterate ill-used shop girl who finds love in the library. And Guth plays the part to perfection. She leaves no laugh uncovered with her impeccable comic timing and no heart untouched as she escapes the attentions of a complete no-goodnik. She is an utter delight throughout the show.
Bryce Ancil deserves similar praise for his perfect turn as eager delivery boy turned shop clerk Arpad. With his big number, “Try Me,” Ancil captures the yearning and young ambition of everyone who has ever set their sights on something bigger. He absolutely brims with likeability and overflows with talent.
After so much praise, I have only one quibble. The first act closing number, “Dear Friend,” is a touching ballad beautifully sung by Miller. But it is largely staged with her back to the majority of the audience. Mr. Kapinos … turn that chair around!
She Loves Me plays at the Reginald Vaughn Theater (1106 W. Thorndale—one block from the Thorndale Red Line Stop) through May 1. The show runs two and half hours, with one intermission. Tickets can be purchased at www.blanktheatrecompany.org and cost between $20 and $30. For more information on this and other productions, see https://www.theatreinchicago.com/.
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