“Vanilla Ice Cream,” one of the delicious numbers in the 1963 musical “She Loves Me,” encapsulates a show that is the musical comedy equivalent of a giant sundae. Toppling with whipped cream, nuts and hot fudge, this theatrical dessert might seem sickeningly indulgent.
But once you dig in, it’s pretty hard to resist. That’s certainly the case with the new revival at South Coast Repertory, which marks the directorial debut of David Ivers as the theater’s artistic director.
The comedy is overdone, the amplification system overlays a canned quality onto the singing and the performers stick mostly to the surface of their characters. But I have to confess I ate the whole thing, smiling even as I lapped up the sweet melted remains. “She Loves Me” is at once difficult to get right and impossible to completely mess up.
With a book by Joe Masteroff and a score by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), the musical is based on the play “Parfumerie,” written by Miklós László in 1936 before he left Hungary for the U.S. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts produced an adaptation of László’s play in 2013 but most audiences will recognize the plot from “The Shop Around the Corner,” “In the Good Old Summertime” or “You’ve Got Mail,” films inspired by this anonymous-pen-pal romance.
Barbara Cook starred in the original Broadway production, and her crystalline soprano had no trouble reaching the frosty heights of “Vanilla Ice Cream.” But the musical was overshadowed by that season’s big Tony winner, “Hello, Dolly!” In her subsequent career as an unparalleled cabaret stylist, Cook reminded theater lovers of the richness of the “She Loves Me” score, revealing the depth of Harnick’s simplicity and the serious delights of Bock’s music, as exemplified in the number Cook made one of her signatures, “Will He Like Me?”
Erin Mackey plays Amalia Balash, the newly hired store clerk who would never in a million years guess that the colleague she has taken an instant dislike to is the secret correspondent suffusing her life with amorous hope. Mackey has a clear and beautiful voice that makes the show a pleasure to revisit. She finds the vulnerable beauty of “Will He Like Me?,” she blows the lid off “Vanilla Ice Cream” and she handles the tricky letter-writing ditty “Dear Friend” with éclat.
Her portrayal of the strong-willed yet insecure Amalia has the necessary turbulent appeal, though Mackey’s singing outstrips her comic playing. Laura Benanti, who starred in the 2016 revival of “She Loves Me” on Broadway, is one of the few musical theater stars able to soar to a high C while being neurotically hilarious and deeply affecting.
The chemistry between Mackey’s Amalia and Brian Vaughn’s Georg Nowack, a salesman at Maraczek’s Parfumerie who lords his experience over her, isn’t especially intense. But as they’re the only two clerks at the store who could possibly make a desirable match, it doesn’t much matter. The audience has no other option but to root for their romance, sketchy as it may be here.
For acoustic reasons unclear to me, Vaughn’s singing sounds especially tinny via microphone. If his Georg is bland, well, the character himself makes a point of acknowledging his beige personality. Vaughn turns a liability into a comfortable neutrality. Unable to deliver a star performance, he allows an Average Georg to modestly shine.
The supporting cast members delineate the store personnel in broad strokes. Ricky Abilez plays up the overeagerness of the young delivery boy Arpad Laszlo. Marlene Martinez accentuates the cheerful brashness of Ilona Ritter, the clerk in a going-nowhere work dalliance with Sam Ludwig’s blurry Steven Kodaly.
Gregory North fills the bossy bill as Mr. Maraczek, the proprietor who has been tipped off that one of his clerks is having an affair with his wife. Veteran employee Ladislav Sipos, the secret source of this tip, is played by Matthew Henerson with the same inconspicuous reliability of his character.
The musical’s urbane 1930s European milieu (a dead ringer for Budapest) is marked by a matter-of-fact decadence. (Costume designer Alex Jaeger’s dresses suggest this freewheeling sensuality better than the boxy men’s suits.) The steady traffic of assignations, adultery and sexual intrigue helps fuel the brisk business at the Parfumerie, which has been conjured into efficient existence by scenic designer Jo Winiarski.
Ivers’ production, while perfectly at ease with the relaxed morality, loses control when the action moves to the Café Imperiale, where the head waiter (Danny Scheie) tries to maintain the furtive romantic atmosphere. Scheie’s over-the-top sibilance, stretching out lines beyond the point of intelligibility, hints at what Maggie Smith might be like high on crystal meth. It’s not something any of us needed to know.
Jaclyn Miller’s choreography disappoints in its attempt to turn the scene into a Harmonia Gardens equivalent. “She Loves Me” may be farcical but it doesn’t have the vaudevillian metabolism of “Hello, Dolly!” What’s more, the visual imagination of this revival (reined in by budgetary realities) isn’t up to the challenge.
The heart of “She Loves Me” is tender. At South Coast Rep, that tenderness is best served when Amalia’s singing turns antic comedy into genuine feeling.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 22
Info: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)