She Loves Me, the 1963 musical now playing at Issaquah's Village Theatre, feels familiar, even if you've never seen it before. It fits like a well-worn shoe and is sweet like vanilla ice cream.
You know the story: two people who hate each other in real life are unwittingly in love with each other in a different realm. It's based on the same 1937 play, Parfumerie, that Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail was based on.
In She Loves Me, which is set in the 1930s, the romantic leads are Amalia Balash (Allison Standley) and Georg Nowack (Eric Ankrim). They spar in the perfume shop where they both work and while corresponding anonymously as pen pals connected through a Lonely Hearts Club.
No one is as happy as they seem in She Loves Me and everyone seems to be hiding something. Maybe love could fix all this.
The Village Theatre's set twinkles and glows. In the middle is the shop, a Tiffany- blue box—Maraczek's Parfumerie—that has delicately trimmed hedges and benches and railings. Right away, we meet the cast, the clerks at Maraczek's, out front. It's a delightful day, and boy, do they not want to work. Maybe they could all stage a very refined little coup and have a picnic and then no one would have to work and they could all enjoy this lovely day.
Another character, Ilona Ritter (portrayed by an electric Taryn Darr), dreams of a time when they won't have to work. Maybe, just maybe, if she gets married, if her workplace fling with suave antagonist Steven Kodaly (Randy Scholz) works out, she'll never have to work again.
The shop opens up. Work begins. It's like a perfect little dollhouse where the ever-changing sky serves as a ceiling and the clerks are the dolls in their intricate and brightly colored costumes (designed by Esther Garcia). When customers leave the shop, they say their goodbyes—a harmonized, robotic "Thank you, madam, please call again. Do call again, madam"—in sync.
But through the constant hum of music that serves as the heartbeat to She Loves Me, each character gets a breath of individuality. There are no showstoppers here. Some of the characters shine, and others fade into the background, all while telling us what they yearn for, or what they think they yearn for. Mostly, that's love.
The best part for me was Darr's perpetually lovelorn Ilona. "Tell me everything, I love to suffer!" Ilona pipes up after Amalia hints at her upcoming date. Ilona's rumba with Mr. Kodaly and her solo "I Resolve" were the highlights.
She Loves Me is timeless and prescient; dating in the '30s feels a whole lot like dating now if you swap handwritten letters for conversations over apps. But it drags and some performances get lost.
Mostly, I wanted more chemistry between the two leads. Standley's plucky Amalia steals the scenes with Ankrim's very standard and well-to-do Georg. I wanted more time for the two together, especially more witty barbs, since I revel in an enemies-to-friends-to-lovers trope. At the end, I wasn't sure if I really felt that she does love him.
But when she finally switches from hating him to loving him, during the frenetic number "Vanilla Ice Cream," it all made sense. She Loves Me is sweet. It is vanilla ice cream. Not as daring as strawberry or even as rich as chocolate.