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The Trouble With Words

Love Letters at Hopkins; Inside the Bard at AXIS

Sharol Buck (left) and Bethany Brown get Shakespearean at AXIS.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: Jane E. Brown in Theatre Hopkins' She Loves You

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 4/25/2001

She Loves Me and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joe Masteroff and By Ann-Marie MacDonald

Theatre Hopkins' production of the 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me isn't as endearing as one could hope for, but it's still easy to understand why this show's fans love it.

There's its lovely story about two bickering co-workers in a perfume shop in pre-World War II Budapest who write letters to "lovers" they think they've never met, completely unaware that they're writing to each other. And there's also the show's generous score: 23 songs, all winners. What's not to like?

The show's mixture of sweetness and tartness holds up well. This durable stage property began as a 1937 play by Hungarian writer Mikló László, which in turn spawned three movies: 1940's The Shop Around the Corner, 1949's In the Good Old Summertime, and, most recently, in 1998's You've Got Mail. The musical version has an identity of its own, and also predicted major creative efforts that its collaborators were starting to work on. Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick would go from the urbane setting of She Loves Me to the rural, more traditional Eastern European setting in Fiddler on the Roof; Joe Masteroff's book for She Loves Me includes a cabaret scene whose sophisticated yet raffish tone prefigures his work for Cabaret.

There is enough talent behind the Theatre Hopkins production--starting with director/choreographer Todd Pearthree, musical director Robert Gee, and pianist Steve Zumbrun--to enhance this musical's mostly lighthearted pleasures. The results are likeable but a tad disappointing. Having a single (albeit competent) keyboard player for musical accompaniment can't compensate for the lack of any other musicians, let alone a band. And having performers who are generally better actors than singers takes it toll on the material.

Fortunately, there's a notable exception to the so-so singing. Edward J. Peters plays one of the letter-writing lovers, George Nowack, with such full-throated confidence that even when George is expressing amorous doubts in the number "Tonight at Eight" he's vocally sure of himself. George's co-worker and correspondent, Amalia Balash, is effectively brought to life by Jane E. Brown, but Brown seems to struggle with some of her songs. However, she does quite well in two crucial numbers, "Dear Friend" and "Vanilla Ice Cream." It's ultimately moving that Brown's voice gains warmth and confidence just as Amalia is gaining amorous self-assurance. Even so, the leads could generate a tad more romantic chemistry. Considering the genteel setting of the play (a perfume shop) and the show's delicate look, with pretty shades of pink and yellow in the set design and costumes, one might expect more tender emotions than this production is able to generate.

Among the notable supporting performers is Dan Baileys as the shop owner, Mr. Maraczek, whose gruff charm is well-conveyed by Baileys in a song that is spoken as much as sung, "Days Gone By." Also exuding brassy charm is Holly Pasciullo as Ilona Ritter, a shop clerk whose number "I Resolve" includes the protofeminist lines "I resolve not to be so brainless . . . I must stop thinking with my skin." Other shop workers are played by Jake Riggs, Billy Burke, and Matt Morris. As with the cast as a whole, they provide consistently good characterizations and somewhat wobbly singing. This makes for a production of She Loves Me that's easy to like but unlikely to inspire love.

It's love for Shakespeare and a scholarly blockage in writing about him that bedevils the main character in the AXIS Theatre production of Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald's comedy Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). When that scholar, Constance Ledbelly (Bethany J. Brown), miraculously finds herself transported inside the Shakespeare texts she's studying, she's able to directly interact with the characters in Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Things really get wacky when these two plays merge and Constance affects their outcomes.

Darlene Deardorff, Sharol Buck, Mark Bernier, and Larry Malkus, cast in multiple roles, bring manic energy to the goofball proceedings. The play is fairly funny, makes a feminist point about the need to more fully appreciate the importance of Shakespeare's heroines, and raises interesting questions about the sources and authorship of the Bard's plays. But MacDonald's script degenerates into a superficial surrealism that only scratches the surface of what might happen if Othello's Desdemona met Juliet.

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