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When Jennifer Ellis’ glorious soprano lets loose on “Vanilla Ice Cream,” the Greater Boston Stage Company’s production of “She Loves Me” soars. And, when Sam Simahk follows with a giddy rendition of the show’s title number, his playful approach feels note perfect. However, these two lovely moments don’t happen until halfway through the second act of the production and much of what comes before and after is ho-hum.
Some of the world’s greatest musicals follow the foibles of ordinary folks, and that moment of recognizing ourselves in the characters often gives the tales unexpected power. The creative team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, whose “Fiddler on the Roof” was such a blockbuster, and the oft-adapted play “La Parfumerie” (aka “The Shop Around the Corner,” “You’ve Got Mail”), seem like a combination that can’t miss. But at the same time we want to empathize with the characters on stage, we also need their emotions to justify those moments when they can’t help but break into song. Only rarely does this production of “She Loves Me,” which runs through Dec. 23, manage to navigate those essential emotional swells, leaving us adrift in a pleasant, but mostly unremarkable sea of songs.
The plot of “She Loves Me” revolves around the motley crew of people who work together in a shop, familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in retail. There’s the middle-aged clerk willing to bow and scrape to ensure his family has a roof over its heads (Robert Saoud in a confidently understated performance), the suave lothario (the powerful singer Jared Troilo), the flirtatious Miss Ritter (the always impressive Aimee Doherty), the eager beaver messenger (Brendan Callahan, a face to watch) and the shop owner Mr. Maraczek (an erstwhile Tom Gleadow).
The two clerks at the center of the story’s romance -- Ellis, as the out-of-work salesgirl who talks her way into a job by convincing a customer to buy a musical cigarette box, and Simahk, as the earnest shop manager -- complicate the action by irritating each other at work without realizing they are anonymous pen pals, brought together by a Lonely Hearts Club ad. Both Ellis and Simahk deliver competent performances, but there’s little chemistry, and they both seem to be holding back. Ellis is someone we’ve seen deliver both emotional fragility (“Merrily We Roll Along”) and razor-sharp comedy (“Love’s Labour's Lost,” “Urinetown”), so we keep waiting for her to dig in. Simahk has played a dashing prince (“Into the Woods”) and a comic boy scout (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”), so we know what he’s capable of, too. We are ultimately rewarded in that second act, one-two punch of songs, but it’s just a little too late.
At the same time Ellis and Simahk seem to be skimming the surface, some members of the ensemble take the notion of broad comedy too far, overexaggerating to a cringe-inducing level. It’s a mismatch director Ilyse Robbins doesn’t correct. Robbins has shown how adept she is at directing musicals (“Scottsboro Boys,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) that demand a fluid integration of dance and storytelling. So it’s surprising that “She Loves Me” only occasionally exhibits that light-on-its-feet feeling. Bock and Harnick’s songs each move the story forward, starting with “Good Morning, Good Day,” when we learn a little bit about each character as they prepare to start their day at the shop, and including Maraczek’s nostalgic lament for his youth in “Days Gone By.” But the scenes in between the songs too often plod along when they should glide effortlessly to the show’s heartwarming crescendo.
Brynna Bloomfield’s jewel-box set, which opens out to reveal the interior of the Maraczek’s shop, should complement the delicate relationships within the story, but instead seems awkward. The upstairs workroom, where Doherty sings the charming “A Trip to the Library,” feels about a hundred miles away, and the design and the colors painted on the set are garish and amateurish, often clashing with Gail Astrid Buckley’s stylish, 1930s costumes.
During this holiday season, many of us are looking for a fanciful escape. “She Loves Me” is a welcome addition to the traditional theatrical lineup. Toward the end of the show — as the story, the glittering decorations and the frantic joy leading up to the holidays surge in the playful "Twelve Days to Christmas" — the audience finally feels the full throttle of the show’s potential.
Greater Boston Stage Company's production of "She Loves Me" runs through Dec. 23.
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