The art of letter writing is one that its protectors are clinging on to in order to keep it alive. Such a practice requires time and effort: selecting the right stationery and deciding what to talk about and how much to reveal in your best handwriting. To bring Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s enchanting and erudite 1963 musical She Loves Me ‘up to date’ with internet dating would be the most horrendous blunder. Such websites make it possible to scroll through countless profiles where images are prioritised over any sentiments expressed. It’s far more romantic and more meaningful to get to know the person through shared tastes in literature and art in ‘each long revealing letter’ than taking a fancy to a selfie. The 1930s are portrayed as an age of innocence in many ways, but the show also showcases wisdom that our own contemporary culture could learn a great deal from.
The now forgotten Hungarian play Parfumerie has spawned numerous adaptations, including The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail. Much loved amongst aficionados yet fairly hidden from the general public, being a She Loves Me devotee is almost like being a part of a special lonely hearts club. British fans have been thoroughly spoiled for opportunities to call at Maraczek’s Parfumerie over the past few years with Stephen Mear’s exquisite, life affirming Chichester production (it’s a travesty that it never transferred to the West End), and an extremely clever offering by Tim McArthur at Walthamstow’s Ye Old Rose and Crown in 2013. Gorgeous voices, intelligence and an abundance of charm are the key ingredients for making the piece soar. Robert McWhir’s rosy production tries very hard indeed and is certainly charming throughout. However, the marriage of Broadway with Mitteleuropa requires an exceptionally delicate touch and I rarely got a particularly keen sense of the latter.
The production marks the professional theatre debut of Charlotte Jaconelli, a classical vocalist known for being a finalist on Britain’s Got Talent, as Amalia Balash (a heroine as delightful as her name). Jaconelli shows great promise in acting through song and delivers accomplished renditions of the heart-tugging ‘Will He Like Me’ and gloriously comedic ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’. Her confidence with dialogue will no doubt develop. Her extreme youth, however, is slightly at odds with the suggestion that Amalia isn’t as young as many a musical theatre heroine, particularly when her leading man looks like an employee of fifteen years.
As Amalia’s sparring partner, John Sandford has a persona and voice would be perfect for Nathan Detroit but is less suited to the shy, cultured Georg Nowack. I felt that he and David Herzog’s very likable Ladislav Sipos should have been cast the other way around. Matthew Wellman expertly channels the suaveness of a Rudolph Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as uber cad Steven Kodaly, adept at giving the lady what she wants in the seduction department but severely lacking with the follow-up. The hapless Ilona’s (a Hungarian Miss Adelaide) desperation to settle down and have babies is effectively portrayed by Emily Lynne, but she struggles to thrive vocally, even in such a small venue.
All the tantalising lotions and potions and exceptional customer service for the well-heeled ladies of Budapest are in place, presided over by Ian Dring’s doddery Mr Maraczek (he doubles up as a haughty maître d’ who could be the father of Cabaret’s Emcee), nimbly assisted by Joshua LeClair’s effervescent delivery boy Arpad (quite the scene-stealing role). Providing the boss is in a good mood, there could surely be no place more joyous to work than in Maraczek’s Parfumerie.