Perfumeries and pen pals

Foothill's 'She Loves Me' is slight but sweet

Valentine's Day is over and Christmas is ever further in the past, but Foothill Music Theatre's "She Loves Me" is a post-holiday treat audiences should eat up like the vanilla ice cream featured in one of its songs.

The musical was first performed in 1963 and boasts music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (of "Fiddler on the Roof" fame) and book by Joe Masteroff. It's based on the 1937 Hungarian play "Parfumerie" by Miklos Laszlo, and there must be something enduringly appealing about it, as Lazlo's play was also the basis for the Jimmy Stewart film "The Shop Around the Corner," the Judy Garland musical "In the Good Old Summertime," and the '90s Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie "You've Got Mail."

The plot of "She Loves Me" consists of classic romantic-comedy material. A man and woman who loathe each other in real life are unknowingly in love as anonymous pen pals. In this case, the star-crossed lovers are Georg (Michael Doppe) and Amalia (Jessica Whittemore), who work together as clerks in a Budapest purveyor of fine perfumes, toiletries and cosmetics. He's cautious, responsible and long-serving; she's spunky, frequently tardy and new to the shop. At work, they spar and viciously insult one another, never suspecting that they're the beloved authors of the tender, literature-discussing letters addressed to "Dear Friend" that they send through a lonely-hearts club.

At the perfumery, they're joined by a close-knit crew of co-workers, including the fatherly boss Mr. Maracek (George Mauro), earnest delivery boy Arpad (Anthony Stephens), Georg's friend and confidante Mr. Sipos (John Rinaldi), smooth-talking Mr. Kodaly (Nick Rodrigues) and unlucky-in-love Ms. Ritter (Morgan Dayley), all of whom get plenty of spotlight moments in the show.

"She Loves Me" is not the masterpiece "Fiddler on the Roof" is in terms of emotional resonance, cultural impact or songwriting greatness. However, the score with its sophisticated-but-gentle operetta style is consistently lovely, pleasant and well-crafted, and the intelligent lyrics and script contain many funny moments. "Twelve Days to Christmas" and "Sounds While Selling," for example full of complex counterpoint and interweaving vocal parts that must have been tricky to learn are two delightful numbers portraying the bustling business of the shop and the clerks' mastery of customer service, as is the recurring "Thank you, madam" harmonized theme. Rinaldi gets to shine in the words-of-wisdom number "Perspective."

On the other hand, the show is overly long. Trimming or even cutting out a few songs entirely might not be a bad idea for future productions. I'd nominate Whittemore's shrill "Where's My Shoe?" as the first to go.

The supporting characters in this production are actually more compelling than the leads. Standout cast members include suave Rodrigues as the unrepentant cad Kodaly and Dayley, whose role as Ritter makes her the second-banana female lead but whose performance is star caliber. She's also responsible for some of the well-done choreography. Special mention must go to the magnificent Nick Mandracchia as Headwaiter, who only has one solo ("A Romantic Atmosphere") but completely nails it, right down to his hilarious facial reactions. Chorus cast members also serve as stagehands, deftly helping rearrange set pieces while remaining in character when in view of the audience.

Director Milissa Carey utilizes particularly thoughtful blocking and pacing that keep the action moving. The actors use the entire stage in myriad ways and nicely incorporate Ruth Stein's many props, such as during the aforementioned cafe and Christmas-shopping scenes, in which the players flow to and fro in a sea of controlled chaos, like a well-oiled machine. Set design by Kuo-Hao Lo makes clever use of the space, including a revolving platform and cute ways of indicating changes in season. And especially striking are the subtly elegant costumes by B. Modern.

Though it may not be a masterpiece, "She Loves Me" is a quiet charmer with a surprising amount of wit. It's old-fashioned but not dated, designed to sweep audiences off their feet and bring them into its intimate embrace, celebrating not only the romance of its lead pair but the camaraderie of its workplace family. Foothill's production of this warmhearted little gem could be ideal for a date night or as a remedy for the late-winter blues.

What: Foothill Music Theatre presents "She Loves Me"

When: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 6

Where: Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, Los Altos Hills

Cost: $12-$32; $3 for parking

Info: Visit Foothill Musicals or call 650-949-7360 for tickets.

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