by Beki Pineda

SHE LOVES ME – Book by Joe Masteroff; Music by Jerry Bock; Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; Directed by Bernie Cardell. Produced by Performance Now Theatre Company (Presented at Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 South Allison Parkway, Lakewood) through January 20. Tickets available at 303/987-7845 or performancenow.org.

What a twisted road this musical has taken to finally arrive in Lakewood.  t started off as a play called PARFUMERIE in 1937 written by Miklos Laszlo set in Budapest in a perfume shop. Hollywood found it and made it into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in 1940 called THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER which was kept in Budapest but moved it to a leather goods shop. Next it was updated and given a musical treatment in 1949  – IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME – with Judy Garland and Van Johnson taking the leads. This version moved it from 1930’s Budapest to turn of the century America, turned the parfumerie into a music shop, and used completely different songs from those featured in the current musical. Next came the 1998 non-musical version – YOU’VE GOT MAIL – which brought it into the modern era with the anonymous lovers using email instead of letters with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan playing rival bookstore owners. The original musical opened on Broadway in 1963 to lukewarm reviews, but a 1993 revival brought new attention to the catchy story and fun music. It’s been playing all over the country and has enjoyed another Broadway version (2016) and international success since.

Performance Now always features a strong musical accompaniment for their production; this pit band led by Eric Weinstein features fine violin work by Lisa Kriss in a delightful overture which gets the evening started off on the right foot. Someone in the group was also playing something that sounded like an accordion, lending a polka air to the proceedings. The first three musical numbers are spritely and full of joy as the employees of Maraczek’s Parfumerie gather for work (“Good Morning, Good Day”), begin the day with “Sounds of Selling,” and celebrate Mr. Maraczek’s memories of “Days Gone By.” A young woman comes into the shop looking for work and convinces the owner to hire her – over the manager’s objections – because she manages to convince a customer to buy a music box by disguising it as a candy box that warns her “No More Candy” by playing a song. The stage is then set for a battle of wits between George, the manager and Amalia, the new salesgirl.

Both confide to fellow workers that they have a secret love that has grown up through letters exchanged anonymously. The plot thickens when they plan to meet “Tonight at Eight” and then are forced to put up Christmas decorations at work. Despite the hesitancy on both their parts, they do, of course, move slowly to the inevitable ending. A subplot involving a tumultuous relationship between two colleagues at work adds frivolity. A misunderstanding on the part of Maraczek adds drama. While all of the music moves the story forward and provides musical insight, only the title song managed to make it out of the score and into the charts of popular songs that get covered by other artists.

Sara Risner returns to the PNTC stage to bring delightful life to the spunky Amalia who fights for a position at the shop and then fights to keep it. She reveals her vulnerable side and her uncertainty to her friend Ilona and as she waits alone in the restaurant for her “Dear Friend” to show up and reveal himself. She is at her funniest in a scene with George when she is trying to get him to leave the restaurant so she can meet her “dear friend,” not knowing that they are one and the same. Ilona, another employee of the shop, is played by Chelsea Herold in a standout performance of a sexy show stopping role. She is the subject of a song (“Ilona”) sung by the other male employees of the shop and shows off killer dancing skills. The male counterparts are created by Josh Kwas as sweet, kinda goofy George Nowack, the manager of the shop, who becomes slightly devilish when he discovers who his dear friend is before she does. His joy as he falls head over heels is a delight to watch. He is supported by Cole LaFonte as the devious Steven Kodaly, a Romeo who is stringing Ilona along with his charm while he romances several others on the side. Craig Ross does a nice turnout performance as the Waiter at the restaurant where the lovers are supposed to meet. He is fighting a losing battle trying to maintain “A Romantic Atmosphere.” Doug Herman provides a handsome, dignified Mr. Marasczek whose mistake in judgement nearly provides a tragic side note.

Some musicals that have an important message to spread can get away without the trappings of huge set and colorful costumes. But musicals that are just for fun and are basically a rom-com with songs – you know we all love them!! – need to have a little more in the way of dressing and atmosphere. If there was a part of this production that disappointed. it was in the physical trappings. Rob Prytherch is a brilliant scenic designer; his sets for INTO THE WOODS and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST have been full of color and fun. This set, while it fulfilled the needs of the show, did not create the frivolous atmosphere or whimsy that would have lifted it to another level. Even the always reliable Cindy Franke costumes seemed to be too dark to be as lighthearted as the show. Sara’s hair dressing or wig constrained and made her look older than her years. The whole show just needed a big shot of charm. Yet despite that, it’s a delightful production enhanced by strong singing chops in all parts telling a cute story.

A WOW factor of 8!!