From the moment She Loves Me’s opening number begins, it’s clear it is a product of a bygone era. It’s set in a perfume shop, an entire store dedicated to those small countertops that most people walk right by in department stores like Belk, Sears, and JCPenny (if you’ve still got one of those in your town).
Its women are preoccupied with finding men to make them wives; its men are fixated on their work and their women. Even the core conceit, which focuses on two characters not knowing that they’ve been writing love letters to each other, is based on lonely-hearts newspaper ads, the great-great-great grandfather of Tinder. And as a musical, it’s a by-the-numbers example of the Golden Age Musical. The songs, the mistaken identity, and the first act company dance number are all present.
So it begs the question, what do we stand to gain from looking back at the bygone? The answer may depend on what you yourself long for from your theatre outings. Based on the 1937 play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo and directed by Andrea Catangay, She Loves Me lacks a solid script or a greater meaning, but it works if you’re looking to dive into two and a half hours of nostalgia for “a simpler time.”
A romantic comedy genre lives or dies by the strength of its central couple. She Loves Me is in good hands. Mary Joy Williams and Xan Rogers as the bickering Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack are charming enough to root for. Their individual merits make up for the fact that the script doesn’t give them enough time together onstage between fights to see any chemistry truly take hold.
But Rogers is likable, especially once events unfold that provide him with more information than his costar. And Williams is the show’s indelible highlight. There’s an infectious delight in her portrayal of Balash, from first to last. Her “Will He Like Me” is the best song of the show, hands down. Though props to Maureen Renee Hughes, as lovelorn shop clerk Illona Ritter, as she attempts to steal the show with her delightful “I Resolve.”
Set design is simple, but does nothing to help you realize that the story is set in 1930s Budapest, Hungary. Everyone handles the music very well, which is praise to music director Anne Warf. Though, unlike Footlight’s previous musical this season Head Over Heels, She Loves Me is performed with recorded tracks instead of a live band.
There were sections where the tracks overpowered the performers onstage, but for most of the production this isn’t an issue. And unfortunately the creative and exciting choreography of Nakeisha Daniel is relegated to just a single number.
A show is a show in its own merits, but in the same season at Footlight Players, She Loves Me does pose an interesting dichotomy with the aforementioned Head Over Heels. They stand on two very different ends of our cultural views and understandings of relationships.
[content-1] Whereas Head Over Heels felt incredibly progressive in its exploration of sexual politics, gender norms, and identity, She Loves Me comes off as almost an offering to traditionalists. It provides a warm embrace to those who long for a return to a specific version of America.
Perhaps that’s why, with the holidays approaching in 2019 America, this particular audience gave the show such a rousing and enthusiastic standing ovation. Maybe it’s just what they wanted. With no nostalgia for the “good old days,” I was left wanting more.