Apparently they’re experimenting with livestreaming Broadway shows, and they chose the 2016 Broadway revival of Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me for their first attempt. Now, within about 18 hours as I’m writing this, the current method of viewing it will be withdrawn from the public, but I guarantee we won’t have seen the last of it when that happens. So I thought, with a milestone as potentially significant as this, that both the show as a whole and the production being recorded here deserved a review.
It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this concept of livestreaming Broadway shows, but I’m not qualified to predict the future of technology and show business, so we’ll leave that element aside pending further developments. I will say, however, that I consider this essentially as another filmed video version of a Broadway show, not that different from the famous Into the Woods video, and I imagine it will wind up getting the same status and availability eventually. But I’m not here to advise on future release decisions for this ‘livestream’…I’m here to review its contents from an artistic perspective.
I think the real reason this show is so beloved is that it really tells a rather sad story about two lonely, desperate, socially awkward nobodies, but ends with the message that even people like that can ultimately find true happiness with someone. Remember, this doesn’t take place in the era of You’ve Got Mail; corresponding with people you’ve never met in person was not yet something one did casually. These characters are doing it because they placed Lonely Hearts Club ads, which is not exactly a sign of outgoing self-confidence. This insecurity also explains their reaction when they first meet in person without knowing who each other are; it gradually becomes clear that they were just as spontaneously attracted to each other then as in their letters, and naturally, their reaction to these feelings they didn’t know how to handle was to bicker and trade insults.
I think what gives the show it’s appeal is this deep, bittersweet humanity and hope, combined with the very old-world-sounding, endlessly melodic and emotionally expressive score, which perfectly gives voice to these heartbreakingly beautiful characters. This is the only Bock and Harnick score that is routinely suggested to be better than Fiddler On the Roof, and some have even proclaimed it the best theater score of the 1960s (please note that this is the decade when The Fantasticks, Man of La Mancha and the aforementioned Fiddler On the Roof, to name a few, came out; that title does not lack for competition).
Of course, the showpiece part is Amalia, the female half of the corresponding couple. Originally played by Musical Theater living legend Barbara Cook, this is the character who gets to sing the incredibly beautiful and moving ballads “Will He Like Me?” and “Dear Friend”, and the aria-like soprano showpiece “Vanilla Ice Cream”. She’s played here by one of Broadway’s greatest voices, Laura Benanti, who makes the most of all her musical possibilities while giving Amalia an utterly unique and human personality. Not since Cook’s original has the role been sung or acted this well, and short of that, there could be no better choice for the performance to immortalize on film.
Zachary Levi seems to be taking inspiration for his performance as Georg from Jimmy Stewart, who played the same character in She Loves Me‘s source material, the classic film The Shop Around the Corner. His comic style can get a bit over-exaggerated now and again, but then, Georg should not be played as a conventionally charismatic leading man type, and this endearingly comic approach does work for the character. And his version of the title-song is spectacular, probably the best rendition I’ve heard…and I’m including all those Pop recordings it got by famous singers like Jack Jones or Johnny Mathis in the Sixties in that statement.
Jane Krakowski is almost certainly the best Ilona of all time, bringing a dramatic intensity to the character that I’m not sure anyone else has found in the part. Her dialogue always seem to come from the heart even on her comic lines…you really feel the hurt underneath her jabs at her ex-lover Kodaly. In an interesting choice, her “I Resolve”, a song usually played essentially as a comedy number, is devastatingly dramatic instead, with an enormous amount of anguish put into every line. She plays the comedy in “A Trip To the Library” for its full effect, but also brings out a giddy joy that makes the song far more touching than it usually is. And her physical comedy with her vis-a-vis Gavin Creel is not only hilarious, but indicates just why she had never been able to resist his allure permanently before (let’s just say it enables you to easily imagine them…doing other things, and makes it clear they’d have fun together there, too.) But then again, Krawkowski has a history of doing amazing things with sex-charged physical comedy…look at her Carla in Nine.
The one false note is Gavin Creel as Kodaly, the villain of the piece. This is a tricky character to begin with, one that doesn’t have a single real redeeming quality but still needs to come off as irresistibly charming, so he requires an exceptionally winning and charismatic performer (in the original production, this part was played by Jack Cassidy). Now, Creel can actually be a very vivid and powerful performer when he sticks to his usual preferred type of the intense juvenile (as witness his stunning rendition of “Talent” in Sondheim’s Bounce), but manipulative charm is just not his forte, and his attempts at it range from the blatantly unconvincing to the downright embarrassing. He does play the physical comedy with Krakowski well, but on the whole, he just comes off as a slimy mustache-twirler in the part, which is just not who Kodaly is supposed to be. And while the brilliant “Grand Knowing You” would be a juicy number in almost anyone’s hands, Creel’s version is somewhat underwhelming…too aggressive, too bitter, and just not capturing the right note of self-possessed smoothness.
As Sipos, the perpetually downtrodden cynical philosopher, Michael McGrath provides a no-nonsense, straightforward comic performance, funny and effective but without the crazed quirkiness the best performers bring to this role. The lesser characters are consistently well-performed, with especial nods going to Byron Jennings’s heartfelt Mr. Maraczek and Peter Bartlett in a particularly hilarious performance as the Headwaiter of the cafe in the last scene of Act I. He just appears in that one scene to sing one song and act generally harried, but while that scene contained extremely juicy speeches for both Benanti and Levi, the most memorable thing about it was Bartlett’s gloriously campy cameo.
Part of the reason this show has never actually made money on a previous outing (though I’m sure that is about to change with this live-streaming phenomenon) is that its special candy-box intimacy works best when it’s staged in a tiny theater (too tiny to actually pay for the cost of staging it) and most revivals feel the need to respect that. It’s the kind of piece that gets revived not for profit but out of a love of theater, and that’s certainly a distinguished mark of honor. I don’t know what this new format will bring for the show’s status, or for theater in general, but I know one thing…they couldn’t have picked a better show to inaugurate it.