Tuesday, December 19, 2006

She Loves Me: Glad Tidings from Arena Stage

In an eleventh-hour surprise, Arena Stage pulled its world-premiere epic musical A Civil War Christmas (by How I Learned to Drive playwright Paula Vogel) for another year of revisions, and replaced it with a lovely, intimate production of the 1963 holiday musical She Loves Me. It's quite possibly the best Broadway musical you've never seen, and for Washington-area theatergoers, its arrival qualifies as a rare Yuletide treat.

She Loves Me is an adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch's beloved 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner (itself adapted from Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie). The wispy plot, in which two bickering department-store employees exchange anonymous love letters in 1930s Budapest, was recycled -- without the charm -- for the Tom Hanks comedy You’ve Got Mail. But She Loves Me is the version to beat. With a shimmering score from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (who would go on to write Fiddler on the Roof), a witty book by Joe Masteroff, and a number of genuinely charming characters that audiences can root for, this show can charm the grouchiest Grinch.

Leading Arena's near-perfect cast are Kevin Kraft and Brynn O’Malley as the pair of bickering lovers, though the supporting cast gets the lion's share of memorable moments. Nancy LeMenager offers a scene-stealing turn as a cashier who falls in love too quickly (and usually with the wrong men). Jim Corti is every bit her equal as a supportive middle-aged co-worker with a penchant for workplace intrigue. Sebastian La Cause plays the show’s nominal villain with oily panache, while Clifton Guterman conveys both youthful enthusiasm and dawning maturity as the store's delivery boy. Hal Robinson casts a generally benevolent if occasionally anxious eye on the proceedings as fatherly shopowner Mr. Maraczek.

All of these characters are lonely or bereft in one way or another, and yet almost all of them manage to find some degree of happiness before the evening is out. Still, the musical’s powerful undercurrent of longing is impossible to ignore: These well-conceived characters possess genuinely conflicted emotions, and emerge as three-dimensional human beings. As they slowly draw closer to each other, sharing hopes and dreams, the show becomes deeply, unexpectedly moving. Even though She Loves Me is a happy musical, it's a far cry from frivolous.

The songs by Bock and Harnick give every actor at least one moment to shine, and usually more than one. Even the throwaway role of Head Waiter -- a deliciously hammy J. Fred Shiffman -- gets a rousing comic number, the gypsy-tinged “A Romantic Atmosphere.” Musical highlights also include a string-soaked rhumba ("Ilona"), a sensual bolero ("A Trip to the Library"), an unctuous and repetitive radio jingle ("Thank You, Madam"), a borderline-operatic aria ("Vanilla Ice Cream," beautifully sung by O'Malley), and even a Viennese waltz ("Days Gone By"). She Loves Me is more than a career highlight for Bock and Harnick; it is one of the most varied, satisfying scores ever to grace a Broadway stage.

Director Kyle Donnelly translates this show to Arena Stage’s notoriously difficult "theater-in-the-square” without putting a foot wrong, and aside from a sly, sideways dig at D.C.’s new smoking ban (which occurs during the "Romantic Atmosphere" number), she steers clear of political content. Sadly, this isn't always a given at Arena: The first show of this year's season, Cabaret, managed to insult the audience’s intelligence along with the entire Bush administration. Given its recent track record, Arena should do everything in its power to keep a director like Donnelly satisfied: Her light touch, affinity for the material, and most important, her ability to keep subtext where it belongs, are cause for celebration in the Washington theater scene.

Kate Edmunds’s set design and Nancy Schertler’s lighting create a mood of understated European elegance, and the lavish fourteen-piece orchestra easily sounds twice its size. All in all, Arena's She Loves Me is so straightforwardly well-acted, -sung and -staged, that when the cast offers its final-curtain reprise of “Thank you, thank you, please come again,” you may find you don't want to leave.

She Loves Me. Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Book by Joe Masteroff. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. About 2 hours, 30 minutes. Through December 31 at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage. $55 - $74. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or click here.

Get Your Scrooge On: A Christmas Carol and Santaland Diaries at the American Shakespeare Center

If you’re the sort of person who can’t get through the holidays without seeing at least one version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the best place I could possibly imagine to get your annual fix is about two-and-a-half hours from D.C., at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. Writer-director Aaron Hochhalter has adapted the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge with painstaking fidelity, and staged it at breakneck speed. David Loar plays Scrooge for sympathy rather than cheap laughs, and the young, non-traditional supporting cast -- members of Shenandoah Shakespeare's official touring troupe -- make the evening go down as easy as pumpkin pie.

The Blackfriars Playhouse, an eye-popping replica of William Shakespeare’s indoor stage, has been decorated for the season with evergreen garlands and wreaths, and is worth the price of admission all by itself. All in all, ASC's Christmas Carol may be the most enjoyable ninety minutes you'll ever spend inside a recreated Elizabethan theater.

Incidentally, the Shakespeare Center also offers a holiday production of David Sedaris's Santaland Diaries, for adults only. This hour-long monologue features actor Paul Fidalgo, who recounts the misadventures of a Macy's department-store elf with nary a slip or a stammer. But as adapted by Joe Mantello, Santaland is too static and unimaginative for the stage, and Fidalgo's comic shtick grows old long before the clock runs out.

A Christmas Carol at American Shakespeare Center, Staunton. Tuesday through Sunday, until December 31. $10-$36. Santaland Diaries, also at American Shakespeare Center. Friday through Sunday until Dec. 23, and daily from Dec. 26 - 31. (Arrive early if you can: Pre-show entertainment begins half an hour before each performance and features traditional Yuletide carols.) For more information or to purchase tickets, call 1-877-MUCH-ADO or click here.

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