Stage REview

The scent of romance in ‘She Loves Me’

Sam Simahk and Jennifer Ellis in “She Loves Me.”
Sam Simahk and Jennifer Ellis in “She Loves Me.”Maggie Hall Photography

STONEHAM — Back in 1963, just one year before Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick solidified their place in musical-theater history with “Fiddler on the Roof,’’ the songwriting duo premiered a show on Broadway that could scarcely have been more different: “She Loves Me.’’

For all its sentimentality and humor, a vein of deep seriousness runs through “Fiddler’’ as it wrestles with consequential questions of family, tradition, anti-Semitic prejudice, and women’s rights. “She Loves Me,’’ by contrast, primarily offers the lightweight pleasures of mistaken-identity romance.

Yet if “She Loves Me’’ is no masterpiece, borne along by a score that features a handful of good songs but no truly great ones, it remains a pretty tasty confection, especially as whipped up by director-choreographer Ilyse Robbins at Greater Boston Stage Company.


To Robbins, recently named to the new position of associate artistic director as the former Stoneham Theatre rebranded itself in hopes of cementing a place among midsize theaters in the Boston area, the term “old-fashioned’’ is no epithet. She has become identified with a certain polish and pizzazz, particularly when her expertise is trained upon extroverted musicals like “42nd Street,’’ “Thoroughly Modern Millie,’’ “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’’ “Sweet Charity,’’ and “Mame,’’ all of which she has directed or codirected in Stoneham. But Robbins proves skilled, too, at teasing out the quieter, Old World charms of “She Loves Me,’’ which is set in a Budapest perfume shop in 1934, nicely evoked by Brynna Bloomfield’s jewel-box set.

The radiant center of this production, unsurprisingly, is Jennifer Ellis. Elegant and versatile, with a glorious soprano voice and a gift for sly comedy, Ellis has emerged over the last few years as one of the finest leading ladies around. She’s essentially the Boston area’s answer to Laura Benanti, and in Stoneham Ellis is tackling the same role that Benanti played in last year’s Broadway revival of “She Loves Me’’: Amalia Balash, a new clerk at Maraczek’s Parfumerie.


Ellis is cast opposite an appealingly low-key, clear-voiced Sam Simahk, who portrays senior clerk Georg Nowack. Amalia and Georg can’t stand each other — or so they think. As they snipe away (for reasons that are never really made clear, frankly) during working hours, Amalia and Georg are unaware that they’ve been carrying on an anonymous correspondence that is steadily growing more intimate, moving beyond the ritual salutation “Dear Friend’’ into the territory of amour.

If that story line sounds familiar, it’s because “She Loves Me’’ is based on Miklos Laszlo’s play “Parfumerie,’’ which inspired Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic “The Shop Around the Corner,’’ starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, and Nora Ephron’s not-classic-but-pretty-good 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,’’ starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Each iteration of the story has traded on the idea that the epistolary self might be more capable of expressing feelings freely and truly than the flesh-and-blood self, constrained as the latter is by social convention.

Not that “She Loves Me’’ delves very deep into that notion or any other. With a book by Joe Masteroff (who would later perform the same duties in “Cabaret’’), this Bock and Harnick musical skims amiably across the surface. A character attempts suicide at one point, but it barely registers. Meanwhile, the one figure who passes for a villain in “She Loves Me’’ — the caddish clerk Steven Kodaly, entertainingly embodied by Jared Troilo — is really not all that villainous. A two-timer in two-toned shoes, Kodaly is stringing along fellow clerk Ilona Ritter (Aimee Doherty, nicely balancing Ilona’s hopeful and wised-up qualities).


Also employed by Mr. Maraczek (Tom Gleadow) are the time-serving Ladislav Sipos (Robert Saoud) and an ambitious bicycle messenger named Arpad Laszlo (Brendan Callahan, wittily making Arpad’s case for a promotion in “Try Me’’).

Throughout “She Loves Me,’’ director-choreographer Robbins consistently mines the musical for its small gems. Group numbers like “Good Morning, Good Day’’ and “Twelve Days to Christmas’’ are stylishly executed, and Simahk nails his big solo on the title tune.

But it is Ellis who accounts for most of this production’s high points. She endows “Will He Like Me?’’ and “Dear Friend’’ with a looking-for-love poignancy, demonstrates both agility and wit in her duet with Simahk on “Where’s My Shoe?,” and brings both the wonder and the ardor of discovery to “Vanilla Ice Cream.’’


Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham. Through Dec. 23. Tickets: $50-$60, 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin