It’s a mystery why She Loves Me is not better known. Perhaps its arrival on Broadway in 1963 coincided with a time when people wanted something tougher and trendier from a theatrical outing than a story about the staff of a perfume shop in 1930s Budapest.
But it is that rarest of things: a musical with a gentle heart, an acerbically witty script and a view of romance that is always warm but never sentimental. Oh, and it’s got some brilliant songs as well. In short, a jewel and one perfectly served by this delicate revival directed by Matthew White.
The plot is broadly the same as You’ve Got Mail, and before that of The Shop Around the Corner, both of which have their origins in the play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklós László. (It also spawned the film In the Good Old Summertime). Two co-workers, Georg and Amalia, feel mutual antipathy when they see each other every day unaware that at the same time they are sending each other amorous letters as pen pals.
The contrast between their affection for the "Dear Friend" they write to and the apparent dislike they experience when they actually meet, reaches its climax in a disastrous assignation in a restaurant where Amalia is waiting finally to meet her letter writer and Georg turns up, realises what’s going on, and behaves abominably. Their encounter positively crackles with suppressed emotion. "At last we’ve got something in common; at one time we were both infants," Georg snaps. "But I grew up," Amalia snipes back.
She then launches into one of the best songs ever written for despairing lovers. "The music is muted, the lighting is low; no wonder I feel so depressed./Charming, romantic, the perfect café/Then as if it isn't bad enough a violin starts to play…" It’s savagely funny and heartbreaking too, an example of the finesse and bite of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and the playfulness of Jerry Bock’s score.
The duo were also responsible for Fiddler on the Roof, but She Loves Me is a musical of a different order, perfectly controlled, fantastically modern in the way it uses song to reveal character, whether it’s that of the aspirational delivery boy, or a despicable love rat, or the star crossed lovers themselves.
Harnick, now 92, was in the audience on press night, and proclaimed himself more pleased with this than any other production. It’s hard to disagree. Paul Harnsworth’s clever set, with its gilded greens and gleaming perfume bottles is a shop you want to live in, while Rebecca Howell’s choreography fills the tiny space with great flair.
And the performances are simply delicious. Mark Umber makes Georg as pompous as Amalia initially thinks him, but gawky too, forever biting his knuckles or rubbing his hands, a man unsure of his position in the world yet trying to hide his doubts. Watching him thaw is a joy; when he sings '"She Loves Me" his wonder and sheer physical excitement are beautifully conveyed.
Scarlett Strallen makes Amalia a wide-eyed, ditzy dreamer, with a fierce line in crushing put downs. Yet her constant hopefulness and the way she strives for happiness is genuinely touching and she sings the showstopping "Vanilla Ice Cream" with a pure-voiced, slow-dawning of love that is an absolute joy.
The strength of Joe Masteroff’s book is the way it surrounds the central couple with a swirl of different passions, and each is given due weight, most notably by Katherine Kingsley, hysterical as a good time girl who finds love in a library (another great song) and Dominic Tighe as the bastard who gives her the run around. It’s characteristic of the fine-tuning of the entire production that even Cory English’s brief appearance as a waiter is a masterpiece of comic timing.
The final section of She Loves Me is set in the "12 Days To Christmas" which makes it perfect seasonal fare. But it’s the kind of show you can watch at any time of year and emerge feeling goodwill to all men. Utterly heavenly.
She Loves Me runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 4 March.