"She Loves Me" at Cinnabar Theater, Petaluma CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photo by Eric Chazankin: (L) Sheila Willey,(R) Roy Eikleberry

For its 39th season opener, Cinnabar Theater offers up a sweetly old-fashioned romantic confection, “She Loves Me”. The excellent cast, crew and director join their considerable talents to present a real feast for the eyes. The sets: divine, like brightly-colored jewel boxes. The costumes: gorgeous, capturing the look and feel of 1930s Budapest. The story: a charming classic about love and mistaken identity with intriguing twists and turns in the plot.

The musical is based on the rather obscure 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, whose work was seldom translated into English. The story is probably most familiar as Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1940 screen adaptation “The Shop Around the Corner”. Eventually it was developed into its musical incarnation “She Loves Me” in 1963 by Joe Masteroff, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, noted for their work on “Fiddler on the Roof”. It had mixed success, but now seems to have become a sort of cult classic for lovers of musical theatre.

Even though the story is set in pre-World War II Budapest, modern audiences will be able to instantly identify with the characters. Georg and Amalia work at a perfume shop, each treasuring their correspondence with romantic pen pals whom they have never met (online dating, anyone?). Their working relationship is far from cordial, and they trade jibes and insults with gleeful malice. If only they knew those pen pals are much closer than they realize.

This revival of “She Loves Me” at Cinnabar has some hummable tunes with catchy lyrics, and the cast is top-notch. Roy Eikleberry (Georg) and Sheila Willey (Amalia) play the unwitting pen pals, delivering excellent vocals and engaging chemistry. Their cutely gullible co-worker Ilona, who yearns for that one big romance, is performed with great charm and energy by Cary Ann Rosko, who also possesses a remarkable mezzo-soprano voice. On furlough from his duties as Managing Director of Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse is Michael Fontaine as lovable shopkeeper Mr. Maraczek. James Pfeiffer is delightfully smarmy as shop clerk and all-around cad Kodaly. Peggy Brady as the gypsy violinist nearly steals the show whenever she strolls onstage, a virtuoso performer. Another show-stealer (and show-stopper) is talented youngster Frank Demma as the shop’s messenger boy Arpad.

Director extraordinaire Elly Lichenstein really has fun with this one, with elaborate staging, snappy bits of action and hilarious antics that make this a very entertaining show. The lush costumes by Julia Hunstein Kwitchoff and beautifully detailed sets by Mark Robinson put an elegant polish on the whole affair. The small offstage orchestra, skillfully directed by Mary Chun, is perfect for this style of music.

Even with all this going for it, there are times when this winsome dainty soufflé almost collapses under its own weight. At three hours long, it’s more like an operetta than a musical. Many of the songs in the first act are too much alike, coming one right after the other and having almost the same tempo, with few breaks for dramatic development. It seems like a half dozen songs could be cut from the first act, to streamline it and bring it more into balance with the second.

It’s still a sentimental journey worth taking. If you need an escape, if only for a few hours, this gently romantic musical comedy with just a touch of pathos will take you back to another time, one far removed from this one.

When: Now through September 25, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $25 to $35
Location: Cinnabar Theater
3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma CA
Phone: 707-763-8920
Website: www.cinnabartheater.org