Minimalism. Extreme minimalism. That is the first thought in my head as I enter the Off Broadway Theater to see “She Loves Me,” a musical that originally debuted on Broadway in 1963 and has made its way to Yale through the efforts of producer Maxwell Sauberman ’18, director Simon Schaitkin ’18 and musical director Daniel Rudin ’19. The stage is completely bare of all props and decor, save a glaringly pink LED screen depicting the title of the musical in whimsical curlicues. The cast members are entirely dressed in black, save a scarf here or glasses there to help them truly personify their role. And, most surprising of all, the 17-person chamber orchestra sits front and center in full view of the audience, as if I were entering a concert hall for a recital instead of the set of a musical. However, these were all creative decisions made by Sauberman and Schaitkin, who purposefully stripped “She Loves Me” of its props and costume grandeur and left only its story and complex score. In this concert musical rendition, Sauberman aims to “make music be the hero,” and in that respect the pair certainly succeed.
Set in quaint 1930s Budapest, the musical follows the lives of the employees of Maraczek’s Parfumerie, whose caricature personalities are as endearing as they are eccentric. Intertwined with themes of love and friendship, “She Loves Me” tells the blossoming romance of assistant manager Mr. George Nowack (Danny Germino-Watnick ’21) and new hire Ms. Amalia Balsh (Cami Arboles ’20) as they balance the demands of work, their own antagonistic relationship and their infatuation with their respective pen pals who, unbeknownst to the two of them, are actually each other. The story, while sometimes overly saccharine, is ever heartwarming and playful, a perfect escape from the bracing fall cold and chaos of midterm season.
The play opens to four of the employees of Maraczek’s Parfumerie opening the store for the day, awkward yet hardworking George Nowack, fretful clerk Ladislav Sipos (Adam Lohman ’18), suave salesman Steven Kodaly (Chris Quazzo ’19) and ever-eager delivery boy Arpand Laszlo (Jake Gluckman ’20). It is not an exaggeration to say that the camaraderie between these four men, or at the very least between Sipos and George, is a highlight of the entire musical. Their playful banter, brotherly bickering and ever-present support of one another is charming, and the four quickly become favorites on stage with their humorous interactions. Watnick’s portrayal of the role of clumsy George Nowack is especially effective, endearing his character to the audience with his slight stutters and nervous fidgeting. George quickly emerges as a main protagonist — he is the reliable friend, the determined employee, the underdog whom the audience cannot help but support in all of his work or romance-related endeavors. His brotherly banter with Sipos, as well as the father and son relationship he shares with the parfumerie’s boss, Mr. Maraczek (Solon Snider ’18), liken the parfumerie to more of a family home than a business. So when Mr. Maraczek playfully chastises George for charming his wife and advises the bachelor to find a lover, the audience cannot help but agree with the fatherlike figure, setting the scene perfectly for the beginning of George’s love story.
To this harmonious camaraderie of salesclerks, in enters strong-willed Amalia Balash. She sweeps into the parfumerie posing as a customer and quickly earns the (somewhat well-warranted) aggravation of George with her tenacity in asking for a job at Maraczek’s. With the unabated enthusiasm of a Yale junior at a consulting fair, she speaks a mile a minute of her qualifications and merits, digging frantically through her bag for her recommendation letter from the husband of a friend who formerly worked at the parfumerie. Admittedly, Amalia is not a character that most would find immediately endearing. Her shrill tones and penchant for interrupting others, especially George, only highlight George’s underdog persona and make Amalia out to be snippy, high strung and belligerent. For this very reason, Amalia’s girlish ballads of young love and her perfect half, who ironically happens to be the very man she cannot stand, can be unpalatable at times, particularly when she lashes out at innocent George, who not only juggles Amalia’s belligerence but also the rising tension he feels from a suddenly irritable Mr. Maraczek. However, my distaste of Amalia has nothing to do with the actress who portrays her. Arboles plays the role with aplomb, easily embodying the personality of a frantic and defensive woman who at times can be absolutely intolerable and at other times unbelievably adorable in her innocence and sincere trust in love.
“She Loves Me” is made even more memorable with the juxtaposition of the emerging, and at times cliched, young love of Amalia and George with the push-and-pull relationship of older accountant Ilona Ritter (Camille Umoff ’21) and flirtatious Steven Kodaly. The opening lines of Ilona are a berating comment towards a smug and confident Kodaly, who easily comes off as an experienced and mischievous ladies’ man. Kodaly constantly goads Ilona, coquettishly hinting at their past dates and his lingering affection for her with every conversation, which Ilona rebuffs adamantly. Her rebuffs are made even more humorous when taken in context with her interactions with innocent Amalia — who fantasizes over her beloved pen pal, “Dear Friend” — while Ilona remains in utter disbelief that Amalia could love a complete stranger, exclaiming “You’re more desperate than I am!” The contrast of untempered young infatuation with the weariness of a veteran heart not only injects humor into the play, but adds a layer of depth in seeing how love can grow and mature over time.
Most importantly, in this musical, the stars are not only the 10 people whose names comprise the list of cast members on the program. Rudin, the conductor, can be seen clearly dancing along to the score as he conducts the orchestra with sweeping bravado and confidence. The actors, actresses and orchestra members all wear uniform black and the stage is more an orchestra pit than a musical set. The orchestra members are just as much members of the cast as are the cast members themselves. Because in this concert musical, the music is the star, and everyone who contributes to the harmony is duly recognized on stage.
At the end of every working day at Marzcek’s, after the characteristic chime of the closing bells, the employees freeze, face the audience and bow, singing, “Thank you, Madam. Please come again. Do come again, Madam.”
And I for one will definitely be a returning customer.
Claire Ong | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Oct 13: A previous version of the story mistakenly stated that the role of Amalia Balish was played by Erin Krebs. The role in fact was played by Cami Arboles.