It's a brief moment midway through Act 2, lasting only a few seconds, but it crystallizes the entire production, and it comes about like this:
She Loves Me is set in the pastel world of Central Europe in the 1930s. All through Act 1, our leading lady, Amalia Balash (Sherri L. Edelen), despises Georg Nowack (David Schmittou), her handsome-if-stern young supervisor at Maraczek's Parfumerie. Amalia could never be attracted to Georg. Her love life, like his, is restricted to writing romantic letters to an unmet, unseen "dear friend." (It doesn't take long for the audience to figure out that Amalia and Georg are the self-same "dear friends" of their letters, but that's what musical comedy is all about.)
On the dreary morning after a missed first meeting with her beloved pen pal, Amalia is in bed feeling sorry for herself -- and a little hung over -- when who should appear at her bedside but archenemy Georg, bearing a carton of ice cream.
After he leaves, Amalia, almost against her will, finds herself singing an unlikely encomium about the heretofore-detested Georg. In any production of She Loves Me, "Vanilla Ice Cream" is a surefire highlight. But in this production, Sherri Edelen is not content to merely praise Georg's qualities with her lilting soprano voice. Before the song is done, she's also singing with her bare, wiggling toes.
How do you sing through your toes? I don't quite know -- except that Edelen does it. Nor do I know whether this fleeting moment has been directed or choreographed, or if the actress is even aware of what she's doing. Nevertheless, hers is the kind of inspired stage business that keeps this aging musical fresh and surprising.
She Loves Me is that rarest of all species: a Broadway musical flop that won't go away. Critics hailed the original 1963 mounting as a delectable variation on the age-old theme of how opposites attract, yet it closed after a mere 302 performances. Three decades later, a major revival at New York's Roundabout Theater garnered those same glowing reviews and transferred it to Broadway: This time it sputtered out after 305 performances. Hardly a substantial improvement.
But the show's music-box innocence and intimacy lend itself to the resident and summer-stock theaters that have kept the musical alive for almost 40 years. Three Christmases ago, the Rep mounted a highly appealing revival. Now, the current Stages version abounds with charms uniquely its own. A few examples:
As the parfumerie's resident cad, Steve Isom glides through "Grand Knowing You" as if on ice skates, perhaps in tribute to the great Jack Cassidy, who so memorably created that role on Broadway. In another number, Isom and Kari Ely (he, the predatory spider; she, the all-too-willing fly) seductively transform a few inches of Christmas ribbon into a sex toy worthy of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. And Ben Nordstrom, as the ambitious delivery boy who aspires to become a clerk, powerhouses his way through "Try Me" with the endearing bravura of an actor auditioning for the role of J. Pierpont Finch in Stages' upcoming production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
The production is not without its flaws. She Loves Me only has two big numbers, yet here both lack the wit that the creators intended. "A Romantic Atmosphere," set in a nearby café, is merely loud rather than ironic. Unhappier still, the classic "Twelve Days to Christmas," which should be the musical's crescendo, is instead anarchic and confusing. Then, too, a running gag about nearsightedness is so lame (and, I believe, layered on to a script that does not need "improving") that it should have been cut in rehearsals. But with a mounting this soothing to the eyes and ears, to nitpick about a few flaws is as unproductive as nibbling around the edges of a Fannie May vanilla crème. Forget about the edges: It's that delectable center filling that leaves a sweet taste in your mouth. The center of this production is very sweet indeed.