With themes ranging from the search for love to the conflict between passion and rationality, infidelity, and the crushing of romantic ideals, “She Loves Me” is a wonderful reminder that musicals were once primarily adult entertainment. In its sumptuous, charming, and darn near perfect revival at Studio 54, the show is also proof that a man’s intellect can be every bit the equal of a physical spark in creating sexual attraction.
The 1963 show, which made a star out of Barbara Cook and had a buoyant 1993 Broadway revival, has never looked better. The sophisticated score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick has been a favorite of musical fans ever since. The story isn’t new. We’ve seen it everywhere from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 movie “The Shop Around the Corner” to Nora Ephron’s 1998 “You’ve Got Mail.” Two people who interact like oil and water in person have, unbeknownst to themselves, been corresponding via letters and fallen in love sight unseen. Comedy is as inevitable as the romantic swelling of relief when the lovers are revealed to each another.
Here, the setting is a Budapest parfumerie in 1934, and the lovers are Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, who convinces the owner, Mr. Maraczek, to hire her when she manages to sell a product no one else in the store believes in.
Romantic love rings true, while chemically-induced affection arrives clinically dead
Though the parfumerie is an intimate little shop, it is also a hotbed of intrigue. Maraczek is afraid his wife is unfaithful. Two clerks — the trusting bombshell Ilona Ritter and the oversexed Steven Kodaly — are carrying on an affair. These stories unfold amidst the daily business routines during the rush to Christmas.
The characters in “She Loves Me” are endearingly well developed, with lovely songs that go to the heart of each. When Amalia is stood up by Georg for their first meeting at a restaurant — he has discovered that his work nemesis is his epistolary sweetheart and can’t face her — she sings, “I make believe nothing is wrong… Don’t let it end, dear friend.” It’s a moment of simple honesty imbued with Amalia’s fear that she’s been a romantic fool. There is not a dry eye at the act break. And there’s much more to come — including the title song and the score’s best-known song, “Vanilla Ice Cream.”
The company is uniformly stellar. Zachary Levi plays Georg with just the right amount of nebbishy sex appeal and earnestness and some surprising physicality that can only be motivated by love. Jane Krakowski is splendid as Ilona — sweet, sexy, and hilarious. She and the always top notch Gavin Creel, as the cad Kodaly, create comic magic.
In supporting roles, Byron Jennings as Maraczek, Michael McGrath as a clerk fearing for his security, and Nicholas Barasch as the delivery boy aspiring to a clerkship are all strong, as is the solid ensemble.
But it is Laura Benanti as Amalia who merits the most superlatives. Benanti has a glorious voice, a spectacular heart, and a flair for self-aware comedy that gives Amalia a depth and poignancy not evident on the page.
The intricately gorgeous set by David Rockwell, perfect period costumes by Jeff Mahshie, and lighting design by Donald Holder bring to vibrant life the world of Maraczek’s little shop and 1934 Budapest itself. Under the heartfelt and precise direction of Scott Ellis, this jewel of a musical has never been more dazzling.
The set-up for Lucy Prebble’s new play “The Effect” is a clinical trial of a psychoactive drug. It raises interesting, if not particularly original questions about depression and drugs and whether our behavior is driven by our innate psychology or influenced by the chemistry of our bodies. The plot centers on what happens when two volunteers in the study — Connie and Tristan — end up in a tempestuous relationship. Is it them or the drug? Is a placebo at work? Is any of this even knowable?
The play raises all sorts of interesting ideas, but the execution is purely clinical. As with her previous play “Enron,” Prebble is far more adept at polemics than at creating real characters, whose motivations here seem sketchy and manipulated to advance the playwright’s points.
In the first act, we’re given little reason to actually care about Connie and Tristan. The subsequent revelation that the study’s sponsor and the attending doctor had a past relationship comes out of nowhere, and ends up making the second act seem like a different play altogether in terms of story and structure. An implausible twist that follows — spoiler alert: we learn that the doctor is herself being tested, but why and for what is unclear — just seems like sloppy playwriting.
Director David Cromer does the best he can to negotiate the play’s inconsistent structure, and the set by Marsha Ginsberg appropriately conveys the high end and cold aesthetic of a wealthy drug company. The cast does a reasonable job, making even the play’s most forced language sound almost like something real people would say. Prebble’s questions are ultimately far more satisfying and edifying than any answers she puts forward. “The Effect” is a trial that simply goes nowhere conclusively.
SHE LOVES ME | Roundabout at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $52-$147 at roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission
THE EFFECT | Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., btwn. W. Fourth & Bleecker Sts. | Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $59.50-$99.50 at smarttix.com or 212-868-4444 | One hr., 40 mins., with intermission