She Loves Me at Tulane’s Dixon Hall
I wish we had a different occupant in the White House.
I wish Hurricane Barry had not caused all the ruckus he did.
And I wish Tulane’s Summer Lyric Theatre’s (SLT) production of She Loves Me had a longer run as this delightful and utterly captivating musical, not seen here in more than a generation, lingered an extra day due to Barry but that wasn’t long enough.
She Loves Me, a musical adaptation of a 1937 Hungarian play, first appeared on Broadway in 1963 starring Barbara Cook and had a respectable but not spectacular run. It’s since gone on to have two critically-praised, Tony-nominated revivals, and has become the type of show that musical afficionados cherish while the hoi polloi go with the Dollys and Disneys and Phantoms.
As anyone familiar with You’ve Got Mail, similarly inspired by Miklós László’s Parfumerie, knows, She Loves Me concerns itself with two battling co-workers, unaware that they have been carrying on an extensive pen-pal romance. The owner of the perfume shop where they clerk and their other colleagues provide additional plot threads for this bonbon of a show.
The score of She Loves Me features lustrously witty lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and tunes full of Old World charm by Jerry Bock, the team who, the following year, would create Fiddler on the Roof. Its just-right book by Joe (Cabaret) Masteroff prevents the story from descending into treacle or mere whimsy.
Kudos to Director Michael E. McKelvey for giving the musical its overdue SLT premiere. He presented it straightforwardly, and, with the help of Rick Paul’s set, smoothly allowed the story to flow along. Musical Director C. Leonard Raybon brought out the warmth and complexity of this lovely score, with a particularly great string section adding to the atmosphere.
As the feuding would-be lovers Amalia and Georg, Dody Piper and Rich Arnold radiated a magnetic chemistry as they tentatively discovered each other’s true self. Arnold endearingly epitomized someone in new-found love, yet also displayed an inner strength that wouldn’t let him back down when Georg knew he’s right. Arnold’s sterling tenor voice was a perfect match for the character.
Piper, who received an 2006 Ambie Award nomination for her portrayal of Grizabella in JPAS Summer Youth Music Theatre’s production of Cats, made Amalia tough but vulnerable, sweet yet determined, and altogether human. Her gorgeous, operatically trained soprano contained not only the ingenue-ishness of Cook but the quirkiness of Madeline Kahn who played Amalia in a 1977 NYC Town Hall concert version. Piper’s rendition of the show’s signature number Vanilla Ice Cream promises to be one of the most thrilling moments ever experienced in a New Orleans theater.
Bryce Slocumb, tall and thin as a switchblade, didn’t overplay the lothario qualities of Kodaly, another salesman, making him all the more believable. As the too-often-disappointed-in-love Ilona, Meredith Owens could have been a little less the victim; that Ilona herself realizes she must better take control of her own agency (I Resolve) doesn’t mean she can’t already have a certain strength. Owens did deserve better choreography for her transformational A Trip to the Library (otherwise Jauné Buisson’s dances were dandy), but she certainly added to the show’s zest and combined with Piper for beautiful harmonies in Don’t Know His Name.
Daniel Hart, as the shop’s ambitious delivery boy, and Sean Patterson, as a genial clerk with a family to support, were each adorable in his own way. Bob Edes Jr. endowed shop owner Mr. Maraczek with magnificent depth giving soulfulness and due dignity to this fading roué.
As beguiling as most of She Loves Me is, the venue where Georg and Amalia plan to meet for the first time seems odd, a kind of upscale version of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub (you’d think they’d’ve chosen just a regular café). The SLT krewe did the best they could with all the assignations going on there (Adam Segrave shined as the Headwaiter) though plastic goblets couldn’t provide the requisite clink of glass.
Glenn Avery Reed’s costumes were simple and period-appropriately stylish. Too many of Erin Routh’s wigs, however, did not complement the actresses wearing them; one missed. Don & Linda Guillot’s creations.
Those are minor quibbles. In a perfect universe, we’d have someone else in the White House, meteorologists could better predict what weather to expect, and this warmhearted show would run forever.
Summer Lyric Theatre concludes its season August 1-4 with the regional premiere of Matilda, the Tony-winning musical adapted from Roald (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) Dahl’s singular novel.
In it, Matilda, a bookish and vastly intelligent girl, is rejected by her dunderhead parents who venerate money, stupidity and crassness. As she challenges them and Miss Trunchbull, the horrible headmistress of her school, she engages them in an epic battle of dark vs. light. The result may be predictable but the path to get there is filled with visual splendor and lots of fun.
Dennis Kelly’s book provides a fantastic bunch of classmate allies for Matilda, neither snarky malcontents nor goody-two-shoes. Tim Minchin’s songs amuse and bewitch; if When I Grow Up is likely to stick in your mind, Matilda’s anthem Quiet will surely touch your heart.
Let’s hope Barry’s friends Chantal, Dorian, Erin, Fernand, Gabrielle, etc., will leave Matilda alone while she’s here.
Mamma Mia! at Rivertown Theater thru July 21
From the sublimity of She Loves Me, a trip out to Kenner takes you to the ridiculousness of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! And in these times, there’s nothing wrong with a fun escapist show like this long-running hit.
For those Ambush readers who somehow missed this musical since it first burst on the scene 20 years ago, MM! tells of a young girl, Sophie, about to get married who invites her Mom’s three paramours of long ago, one of whom is likely to be her father, to her wedding to try to figure who should be the one to give her away.
Set in 1999 on a Greek island where Donna, Sophie’s mom, runs a taverna, MM! uses a smörgåsbord of ABBA’s #1 hits which do a surprisingly good job of creating character and moving the somewhat slight plot along.
In New Orleans, Ricky Graham’s name is almost synonymous with humor, often of the broad variety, so he’d seem like the perfect choice to helm Mamma Mia! Interestingly, as director of this Rivertown production, he brings out the script’s drama or, rather, its more human emotions, which is fine.
In fact, whereas the Broadway and movie versions seemed to focus on Donna (hey, understandable since Meryl Streep played her on screen), in community theater productions, at least those here, the emphasis seems to shift to Sophie; that occurred last year with The Company’s production in St. Bernard as well.
At Rivertown, LeeAnn Hovis makes an especially appealing Sophie as she struggles to figure out “who she is” all the while singing with a sweet, pure voice. With her entrancing yet down-to-earth charm, it’s understandable why a cool guy like Sky (Jayden Heller) would fall for her.
Though he’s a tad too young for the role, Heller is simply the best Sky I’ve ever seen. He invests this young man with a gravitas that, in his too few scenes, revivifyingly ups the show’s ante including when he leads a line of guys in diving suits, complete with flippers, in the Lay All Your Love on Me number.
Am I surprised by this? Nope, as Heller delivered a Nathan Detroit earlier this year in NOCCA’s Guys and Dolls that hit the comic jackpot. He’ll be going off to Marymount Manhattan College in NYC later this year. I hope we haven’t seen the last of him.
Aside from the Sophie/Sky narrative, however, something seems to be missing. Despite Graham’s involvement, a certain overarching comic spark is absent and so the production never fully takes off despite considerable individual elements. These include–
–Trina Beck and Lisa Picone Love bring their bounteous talents to bear as Donna’s gal pals and former members of a rock band they were all in. Their Chiquitita trio with Donna is immeasurably pleasing.
–Warren A. Hovis (Leeann’s real life father), Gary Rucker, and Matthew Mickal make a suitable trio of potential fathers, with each displaying a true paternal interest in Sophie.
–Garrin Mesa, as one of Donna’s houseboys who aspires to be Beck’s lover, shows off awesome dance movies (how does he leap that high with legs at an almost 180 degree angle?) and a nice comic sense.
–In addition to the flipper dance, Heidi Malnar provides choreography both imaginative and well-done by the large ensemble as in a Greek-styled tarantella (or hora). Her use of tap for the second act opener Under Attack made the number more memorable than usual tho I wish she had let her dancers cut loose even more.
–Robert Camp’s lighting bathes the stage, not only in Grecian shades of sunlight and moonlight, but with splashes of color that highlight the merriment. Cool projections enhance things throughout, especially in Money, Money, Money.
You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned the Donna of Ashley Smetherman Lemmler yet. When I saw her name in the playbill, I had high expectations as this marvelous singing actress gave two of the most outstanding performances in recent memory as Queen Aggravain in Once Upon a Mattress and as Countess Charlotte in A Little Night Music.
Her Donna, however, isn’t at the level of those. There’s a lot of talk about Donna being a “rock star” and a “dynamo” but the script doesn’t really allow an actress to show that side of her which hampers Lemmler’s performance. Here she seems like a nice gal but not the force of nature Donna needs to be, as she and Graham haven’t found other ways to bring this Donna to full dancing queen life. Having seen the added (due to Barry) opening performance, perhaps Lemmler will do so as the run progresses.
As Barry fades from view and the summer muggies return, a trip to a Greek island might be nice. Rivertown’s Mamma Mia! may not be perfect, but with all those catchy ABBA songs, a trip to Kenner will give you almost as much entertainment and at a lot less expensive price.
The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans will stage The Glass Menagerie at the Marigny Opera House (725 St. Ferdinand St.) July 26 through August 17. If you need to know anything more about this most famous of Williams’ plays, google it and then plan to see this production which will be directed by Augustin J Correro and feature Judy Lea Steele (Amanda Wingfield), Julia DeLois (Laura), Nathaniel Twarog (Tom) and Matthew Raetz (The Gentleman Caller). ’nuff said.
The Company: A St. Bernard Community Theater presents The Wedding Singer at Nunez Community College in Chalmette, July 25-28. John Collins directs this musical based on the 1998 film of the same name that revolves around Robbie, who sings at weddings, his failed relationship with his former fiancée, and his romance with a new love, Julia. Sounds like a perfect summertime romp to me.