I’m probably as guilty as anyone else in thinking that Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof and probably not much else. Wrong! Together they wrote nine other shows, including She Loves Me, an adaptation of the 1937 play Illatszertár, by Hungarian dramatist Miklos Laszlo, with whose works I am sure we are all highly familiar. Surprisingly perhaps, the play was also the original basis for three films, including the (relatively) recent You’ve Got Mail. She Loves Me was moderately successful artistically, but didn’t make any money, with a run of 302 performances on Broadway and 189 in the West End. A film, that was to star Julie Andrews, failed to materialise. Nevertheless, a revival in London in 1994 ran for a year and won many awards, and a revival on Broadway in 2016 was very successful – so now we see it back in London at the Menier.
The scene is mainly set in Mr Maraczek’s perfume shop in Budapest, where diligent and respectful sales clerks bend over backwards to satisfy the demanding hoity-toity ladies of the Hungarian capital. Miss Ritter and Mr Kodaly have an on-off relationship which seems to be more off than on as they argue and then spoon despite Maraczek’s disapproval. The second-in-command, Mr Nowack, has been writing love letters to a “dear friend” whom he has never met and he’s getting very agitated about the prospect of finally meeting her. One day a new face appears at the shop – Miss Balash – who impresses Maraczek enough to give her a job. However, she and Nowack start off on the wrong foot and before long they can’t stand the sight of each other. Yes, you’ve guessed it; she’s the recipient of his love letters and neither of them realise it. What happens when the two pen pals finally decide to meet for dinner? Well, you’ll just have to see the show to find out.
It’s a really beautiful, charming, funny and exquisitely musical musical. Paul Farnsworth’s set, which utilises four small revolving stages to transform a Budapest street into an upper class haven of retail delights, is stunning – although I did find the acting space provided for first two scenes of the second act – the hospital and Amalia’s bedroom – a little cramped. Catherine Jayes’ band plays Jerry Bock’s entertaining and beautiful melodies with loads of fun and character, and Sheldon Harnick’s witty and thoughtful lyrics are in very safe hands with a fine cast and sensitive direction by Matthew White. There are a lot of musical numbers in the show, and I appreciated how well each song either progressed the plot or gave us valuable character insights. It’s not a stop-start musical, but rather the book and the songs join seamlessly to create a satisfyingly well-structured piece.
Scarlett Strallen leads the cast in the role of Amalia Balash, with a fine portrayal of both the enthusiastic shop girl head over heels in love and the feisty, obstinate colleague from hell. She sings immaculately – well you knew that already from her appearances in A Chorus Line and Candide. She really nails the humour of the role too – her tear-stained slumping around the bedroom was hilarious, and of course she expresses Harnick’s superb observations with telling accuracy. She’s perfectly matched by Menier favourite Mark Umbers, whom we loved in Sweet Charity and Merrily We Roll Along, with his essential earnestness and hilarious portrayal of Nowack deviously wriggling out of a difficult situation. He sings with great tone and warmth and has a great stage presence.
There are plenty of other show-stealing performances on offer – Katherine Kingsley is officially fabulous as Ilona Ritter, characterising her as a working-class girl whose head is turned – eventually – by the lure of books; the downtrodden voice she gives Miss Ritter is simply brilliant. Dominic Tighe confidently expresses Kodaly’s superiority and smugness, and I’m always impressed by how nifty he is on his feet for a big chap. Alastair Brookshaw’s Sipos is an entertainingly humble everyday guy, with a little more of the wheeler-dealer about him than you might expect; Callum Howells’ delivery boy Arpad is bright as a button and keen as mustard, and Les Dennis plays Maraczek with avuncular generosity until he has cause to doubt the world around him. But for scene-stealing, you only have to look to Norman Pace’s hilarious head waiter at the Café Imperiale, managing his bumbling staff and his unsuspecting customers alike with ruthless authority.
Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in complete agreement that this is a beautiful and classy production that absolutely brings the best out of the cast and the music. But we also agreed that the show itself is extraordinarily lightweight. It’s pure, insignificant light entertainment with absolutely no substance whatsoever. Given the fact that its subjects include adultery, a suicide attempt and broken relationships, there’s not an ounce of gravitas or a provocative moment in the whole two-and-a-half hours. It’s truly a soufflé in an art form where you have the potential to be a Chateaubriand. Depending on your point of view, this may be the perfect escapism from a world of Trump and Brexit. For me, however, it makes the show borderline irrelevant. There’s no doubting the talent that brings all this together, but on the whole I’d prefer to take home memories of something a little more substantial. One year later Harnick and Bock would give the world Fiddler on the Roof, with all its important observations and superb character creativity. Perhaps this show just came one year too early.
Production photos by Alastair Muir