It is a real pleasure to find the female lead in a new show with the appeal, charm and charisma of a star from the golden days of the Hollywood musical but this is indeed the case with Scarlett Strallen who lights up Mathew White’s exquisite production of the 1963 romantic musical, She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory) from the composing and lyric writing team – Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick – who gave us Fiddler on the Roof.
The show is based on a Budapest-set 1937 play, Parfumerie, by Hungarian Miklos Laszlo. Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack work together as clerks at the aforementioned Parfumerie and have disliked each other from the very beginning. He thinks she’s stuck up and she thinks he’s arrogant and mean. But each rapturously writes to lonely hearts pen pals, and despite the anonymity of their secret admirers, they live for the love letters that they exchange and the day they will finally meet, little realizing that they are actually corresponding with each other!
This is a playful and delightful musical which is staged with rare elegance and wit. The high point and must hilarious scene takes place at the Café Imperial, where Amalia sits alone waiting for her secret admirer, while the head waiter strokes the legs of the audience members and tries to ignore the sound of crashing trays which repeatedly disrupts the romantic ambience of the place.
Jerry Bock’s score embraces everything from a Hungarian Czardas to a Ravel-like bolero, and Sheldon Harnick’s adroit lyrics weave their own spell. A wonderfully witty song hymns the escalating frenzy of festive shipping. But the two catchiest numbers are the haunting Days Gone By and Vanilla Ice Cream, in which our two warring protagonists reveal that they are secretly smitten with each other.
Designer Paul Farnsworth has created a truly beautiful set – a genteel shopping parade that soon revolves to form the bottle-lined interior of the store owned ageing parfumier Mr Maraczek.
It is, though, the captivating performance by Scarlett Strallen as the feisty but lonely Amalia that captures our hearts, bringing an emotional depth (as well as a strong and sweet singing voice) to her role of a bookish girl’s slowly dawning appreciation of love. Mark Umbers as Georg suggests the character hides his shyness behind a façade of condescension, yet is often endearing in his prickliness. There’s excellent support from that fine, comic actress Katherine Kingsley as their blonde buxom and romantically forlorn colleague Ilona, Dominic Tighe as her fickle in-store beau Steven Kodaly, Callum Howells as young deliveryman Arpad Laszlo, angling for promotion, and particularly impressive, Les Dennis as the grumpy store owner Mr Maraczek with marital problems of his own.
This may have been a forgotten musical but the Menier’s cherishable production resonates in the mind long after the final curtain and fully deserves a West End transfer.
She Loves Me
Playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 4 2017Last modified: December 21, 2016