The most satisfying reveal in the 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail comes when Tom Hanks stumbles upon Pride and Prejudice-wielding Meg Ryan in a café, discovering what we, the audience, have already known for some time—that Ryan, the anonymous email buddy he’s loved from afar, is in fact his arch-career enemy. Rather than being some smart ’90s conceit, the scene is lifted almost verbatim from a 1930s play so artfully and tightly constructed that its premise has inspired several star-studded films (including In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland), in addition to the musical She Loves Me.
“It’s brilliant, the structure is great, which is why there have been so many iterations of this particular story,” says Aaron Thielen, Marriott Theatre’s artistic director who directs and choreographs a production currently running through June 18.
She Loves Me was no hit when it premiered in 1963, running for less than ten months. But when it was revived in 1980, Alvin Klein, theatre critic at The New York Times, deemed the show “a cult musical on the comeback trail.” More recently, the Roundabout Theatre Company production received eight 2016 Tony nominations, ultimately taking home the award for best musical scene design by David Rockwell.
With songs by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book from Joe Masteroff, the show tells the story of Amalia and Georg, co-workers work at a Hungarian parfumerie, who are corresponding via a lonely hearts pen pal service while simultaneously bicker-flirting at their work. After Georg learns that Amalia is indeed his letter-writing love, tension builds and romance ensues.
She Loves Me is a musical where song and action go hand in hand (rarely is there a pause for a big show-stopping number) and one which robustly showcases each of its seven principal characters. The Roundabout revival, which starred Zachary Levi of NBC’s Chuck, Tony award-winning Laura Benanti, and Jane Krakowski of the Netflix hit Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was praised for its cast and Warren Carlyle’s character-driven choreography. Thielen, who saw the revival, says the high production values initially made him slightly nervous. “It was just a stunning production, I thought, ‘Oh crap, do I really want to do this show now after seeing such a beautifully crafted version?’” But proceed he did, with choices solidly his own. For example, in homage to the show’s roots (the 1936 play Parfumerie, by Hungarian-American playwright Miklós László), Thielen’s choreography is deliberately rooted in traditional Hungarian dance.
The cast includes Marriott veterans Alex Goodrich as Georg and Elizabeth Telford as Amalia. Store clerk Sipos is played by James Earl Jones II, who portrayed an African-American Republican last season in Thomas Bradshaw’s Carlyle at The Goodman Theatre. “I’m a black man in Hungary and I think that will immediately make the show feel different for some people,” says Jones. “I really do applaud Aaron because I think to cast me in the role of Ladislav Sipos is a gutsy move.”
“Gutsy” wasn’t a word being used to describe Marriott’s casting choices just over a year ago, when its production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita featured only one Latin performer.
Since that time, Thielen says the theatre has taken concrete steps towards creating more opportunities for all actors, especially with access to auditions, holding casting calls in Chicago, for example. “It’s been good to listen to the casts that come through here, that have positive experiences,” Thielen says. “And those that don’t have positive experiences, which have been very few, write us and to say, here’s some things you may want to think about or work on. Now we’re having a dialogue and that’s been super important.”
Jones, who’s worked with Thielen before (most notably on Marriott’s world premiere of the musical October Sky), sees his casting as representative of Thielen’s vision. “Especially in a theatre like the Marriott, which has such a strong subscriber base, there are sometimes people who feel like the subscriber is dictating what the shows are and how the shows are cast,” he suggests. “But I think it’s a bold move and an exciting move in that Aaron said that this cast should be a cast of people whom he believes will make the show sparkle.”