It’s the best musical you’ve never seen, said Wayne Bryan, guest co-director for Wichita State University’s production of “She Loves Me,” which opens Thursday for four performances.
The 1963 romantic musical about star-crossed but bickering lovers is by the same team that later created the hit “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Bryan, longtime producing artistic director for Music Theatre of Wichita, refers to the show as an “exquisite jewel” or a “wonderful pastry” or “intimate chamber music.” Despite critical acclaim and awards, the show never has become a commercial success.
“I’ve never met an audience that didn’t adore it when they saw it,” Bryan said, “but because it’s never been a money-maker, it’s always nudged out of theater schedules in favor of bigger, brassier shows like ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘Funny Girl.’ I’ve put it up for Music Theatre consideration for years, but it never got enough votes from audiences.”
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Actually, Bryan noted, people have seen it and liked it on the movie screen in various incarnations including 1940’s “The Shop Around the Corner” with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, 1949’s “In the Good Old SummerTime” with Judy Garland and Van Johnson and 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
So why is the musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joe Masteroff (book) getting a rare revival now in Wichita?
“It’s ideal for a repertory company or a university setting where art is important and the commercial aspect isn’t the deciding factor,” Bryan said. “It’s a chance to expose young talent to a show they should know as well as give audiences a treat. It’s a win-win.”
Based on “Parfumerie” by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, the story revolves around two clerks in the same shop who don’t get along in person but, unbeknownst to them, have a meeting of minds and hearts as anonymous pen pals after hours. Even with help from a funny and colorful coterie of friends, can they ever find a way to be a couple face to face?
“I like everything about the show, from the immaculate plot construction that builds on itself to characters that never overstay their welcome to music that said everything just right and knows when to stop rather than go on seemingly forever,” Bryan said. “This is a caviar show. It has a specialness you want to share with those who are special to you. And did I mention how romantic it is?”
Co-director and choreographer Amy Baker Schwiethale agrees, likening “She Loves Me” to a box of fine chocolates that looks lovely and provides a surprise in every bite.
“When most people think of a musical, they think of big dance numbers. While this show has one, most of the movement is about exquisite gestures, musical timing and specificity,” Schwiethale said. “Every couple has a different story going on choreographically. It’s about the precision of the music accent, never just an eight-count.”
Ross McCorkell and Claire Gerig play Georgand Amalia, the co-workers who don’t yet realize they are secret soul mates.
“Georg is a very put-together, well-educated guy who is very good at his job. But for all his professional confidence, he is shy and nervous around the opposite sex in his personal life,” said McCorkell, a senior musical theater major originally from Scotland but now from Houston, who will graduate in December.
“He can be himself only with his anonymous pen pal. He doesn’t know who she is or what she looks like, but they are an intellectual match,” McCorkell said. “What I like most about Georg is that love makes him blossom.”
For Gerig, a junior music theater major from Wichita who graduated from Maize High, Amalia is similarly good at work but insecure about her personal life.
“I can relate to her a lot because she is cautious about relationships with men. I think every girl struggles over whether someone likes her and how she should handle it,” Gerig said. “Otherwise, in her life, she is bright and charismatic. I connect most with her in her yearning to strive to do her best and make a good first impression. She can be a little stubborn, but that’s not bad. She’s an ingénue with spunk.”
Playing comic relief to the romantic leads are Emily Pirtle as Ilona, a hopeless romantic who has been around the block a few times but keeps coming back for more, and Aaron Craven as Kodaly, a self-centered lothario who intends only to toy with Ilona’s affections then finds himself unexpectedly caught up in her web.
“Ilona is independent and outspoken, but she has a weakness for men and is a bit naïve, or maybe gullible. She wants to believe everything they tell her,” said Pirtle, a senior theater major from Wichita who graduated from Kapaun Mount Carmel. “She’s been burned a few times but I like that she doesn’t give up.”
Adds Craven: “My character is a dapper, headstrong guy. He’s a charming bad-boy around the ladies. I can really appreciate his ambition because, like him, I know I don’t want to be in the same place for the rest of my life. Like me, he knows what he wants and goes after it. The difference is that he isn’t held back by my sense of morals.”
Playing their sentimental boss, Mr. Maraczek is Caleb Coffman. Other friends are Luke Walker as Sipos and Casey Bagnall as Arpad. Ensemble members include Michael Allen, Joe Consiglio, Melissa Ford, Anthony Gasbarre, Megan Gill, Rachel Gorman, Gavin Myers, Scott Salem, Brandon Smith, Katelyn Stoss, Ian Sutton, Emily Vargo and Alex Wells.
Linda Starkey is music director and Philip Taylor is conductor. Costumes are by Rebecca Maholland, set by David Neville and lighting by Jonathan Standridge. Stage manager is Isaac Unruh.