Review: Austin Playhouse’s She Loves Me is a charming romance that shines most when the pace slows

I’ve got a two-fer of blog-original reviews this week! This is the first—She Loves Me at Austin Playhouse.

Before getting into the meat of this review, though, I have a bit of a confession to make: She Loves Me is my favorite musical.

I know, I know, it’s a slight romantic comedy that doesn’t hold a candle to true classics of the stage—nor even to its composers’ more famous work, Fiddler on the Roof—but the heart wants what it wants, and my Hallmark-Christmas-movie-loving heart wants charm, comedy, and light drama wrapped up in a warm holiday-themed bow.

Which is exactly what Austin Playhouse’s new production of She Loves Me (playing through December 21st) provides.

With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and a book by Joe Masteroff (based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László), She Loves Me is the story of a small perfume shop in Budapest and the romantic lives of its various employees during one Christmas season. In particular, the play follows the love affair between Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, two clerks who can’t stand each other but, unbeknownst to either of them, are secretly falling in love as anonymous pen pals.

If this story sounds familiar, you may know it from two classic film adaptations of Parfumerie—1940’s delightful The Shop Around the Corner, with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and the lesser-known 1949 Judy Garland film In the Good Old Summertime. More recently, it was adapted for the digital era as the 1998 Nora Ephron film You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The reason why this simple story has been adapted so many times is because, quite frankly, it works as a fun piece of romantic comedy. And though Austin Playhouse’s version of She Loves Me—directed by Scott Shipman, with musical direction by Lyn Koenning and choreography by Judy Thompson-Price—is hilariously funny at times, it succeeds more at the romantic half of the equation.

The small stakes of She Loves Me might lead many people to consider it a small-scale musical, but in actuality the comedic demands of the text rely on a complex set, a large cast of extras, and pitch-perfect pacing. The relatively small stage of Austin Playhouse is not well-suited to that level of busy-ness, so a great deal of the mayhem of the first act feels messy rather than manic, undercutting a lot of the comedy and subtle relationship-building.

However, when the pace slows down in the second act, and the story relies more on individual performers rather than complex set pieces, this production shines. When Shipman is given the room to breathe, and lets his actors do so as well, the stage oozes with charm and delight.

Joey Banks has razor-sharp comic timing as Georg, making him simultaneously obnoxious and yet an utterly likable hero for which the audience can root. Similarly, Sarah Zeringue as Amalia combines a golden voice with an icy veneer that slowly melts over the course of the play, creating a solid arc to the growing romance between the pair. The supporting roles in the show are equally as charming, particularly Marie Fahlgren’s sweetly lustful Ilona, Stephen Mercantel’s attractively smarmy Kodaly, and Bryce Ray’s puckishly energetic Arpad.

Though uneven in its first half, Austin Playhouse’s She Loves Me ultimately pulls through on the strengths of its cast, providing all the charm, wit, and whimsy that one could want from a piece of holiday-themed romantic comedy.

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