Sheffield Crucible has a fine record of high-energy blockbuster musicals at Christmas, but She Loves Me comes out of quite a different stable. Not that there's any lack of energy (Ewan Jones' eye-catching choreography is as full of acrobatics as of sly wit), but the tone is quite different, sophisticated, almost European, as befits its origins in Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie, first performed in 1930s Budapest. There's a whiff of old Europe about the whole thing, even hints of operetta, though Sheldon Harnick's conversational lyrics usually lead to less formal musical structure – no wonder the recently departed Stephen Sondheim loved it!
Harnick, composer Jerry Bock and bookwriter Joe Masteroff took hold of Laszlo's play in 1963 after it had already provided the basis for two hit Hollywood films and created a beautifully crafted ensemble piece with almost no big numbers: only the title song has any claims to be a standard and one other number, the eccentrically constructed, but wonderfully revealing, "Vanilla Ice Cream", has a life outside the show. Instead musical numbers are built around a hung-over woman looking for her second shoe or the formal "Good morning" greetings of shopworkers assembling for work and wishing they could picnic in the sun. The songs advance the plot, reveal characters' inner selves and belong in She Loves Me, not in 'The Great American Songbook'.
The main plot device is cutely simple. Georg Nowack is assistant manager in Maraczek's perfume shop and has fallen in love with an unknown woman via a "lonely hearts" correspondence. Amalia Balash blags her way into a job at Maraczek's and instantly she and Georg are at daggers drawn – but she, too, has a dear friend with whom she corresponds and whom she has never met…and, of course, it is Georg!
However, Masteroff, Bock and Harnick take their cue from the title of Laszlo's play – it's about all the people who work in the parfumerie, one after another becoming the focus of attention. The show begins with ensemble pieces and only gradually individuals emerge, to the extent that in Act 2 "Vanilla Ice Cream" kicks off a series of four terrific solo turns, but even here two "less important" characters are allowed to cap Georg and Amalia's showstoppers – but in She Loves Me nobody is less important.
Robert Hastie's stylish production gives due weight to everyone at Maraczek's: Lewis Cornay's earnest delivery boy with aspirations to becoming a clerk, the comically squabbling second couple of Steven (Andy Coxon) and Ilona (Kaisa Hammarlund), the gauchely sympathetic salesman Sipos (Marc Elliott) and Karl Seth as Maraczek, alternately sparkling and dismissive. As the show develops, potential tragedy arrives out of the blue and one character emerges as unexpectedly despicable – She Loves Me is ultimately soft-centred, but it has a hard edge, too.
David Thaxton and Alex Young play Georg and Amalia in suitably anti-romantic style, he disturbed by her intrusion into his nonchalantly self-satisfied lifestyle, she aspirational, prickly, more obviously on the edge, both revealing romantic dreams in stolen moments.
An eight-strong all-dancing, all-dining, all-shopping ensemble does great work, as everything from Maraczek's customers to night-out-ers at the Café Imperiale going through high-jinks to the tune of "A Romantic Atmosphere" served up by Adèle Anderson's Maitresse d' – Marlene Dietrich with a French accent!
Ben Stones' designs tend to make less use of the wide-open spaces of the Crucible stage than usual – this is an intimate musical successfully translated into an epic acting area – and his smart pink shop façade, wittily lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun, is happily transformed into counters and shelves that, at times, seem to be joining the dance.