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Review: 'She Loves Me' is a bittersweet gift from the Wick Theatre

Correspondent

The clever courtship of Amalia Balash and Georg Nowack has been beguiling audiences ever since Miklós László invented the unlikely sweethearts in his 1937 play “Parfumerie.”

The Hungarian playwright’s stroke of genius was to have the two lonely singles build a romantic relationship through lonely-hearts letters — the Match.com of the day — without having met or seeing a photo of the anonymous pen pal each addresses as “Dear Friend.” László’s wrinkle is that when Amalia is hired as a clerk at the elegant Maraczek Parfumerie in Budapest, assistant manager Georg takes an instant dislike to his clever new colleague. And the feeling is mutual.

So while their epistolary connection is sizzling, their in-person interactions are forever fizzling.

If this sounds familiar, you may have seen the 1940 James Stewart-Margaret Sullavan movie “The Shop Around the Corner,” the 1949 Judy Garland-Van Johnson movie musical “In the Good Old Summertime,” the 1963 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joe Masteroff Broadway musical “She Loves Me” or the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie “You’ve Got Mail.” Though the pen pals’ names, the locations and the time periods were changed in some of these adaptations, all flowed from László’s original notion.

“She Loves Me,” twice revived on Broadway and a regional theater favorite, has just opened for an enchanting holiday run at Boca Raton’s Wick Theatre. The musical retains the charm of its long-ago source, adding a soaring score full of songs about love, longing and insecurity, as well as character-revealing numbers delivered by a cad, his adventurous gal pal, an insightful family man, a betrayed boss and a delivery boy with moxie.

Following on the heels of its acclaimed production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the Wick is giving its audiences a lovingly crafted, beautifully delivered, bittersweet musical gift in “She Loves Me.” It’s bittersweet because award-winning musical director Michael Larsen, who adapted the score for two pianos, died suddenly just before rehearsals were to begin. Then, Patrick Cassidy, the production’s marquee star, had to deal with the grave illness and death of his half-brother, former teen idol David Cassidy, shortly before the show’s opening.

But as the maxim says, the show must go on. And with director Norb Joerder at the helm and co-musical directors Eric Alsford and Michael Friedman at the two pianos, “She Loves Me” works its reliable magic.

As with its “Drowsy Chaperone,” the Wick’s new show soars on the talents of its fine cast, particularly the actors playing Amalia and Georg.

Carbonell Award winner Julie Kleiner, a frequent nominee for her work in major roles at several South Florida theaters, has never been better than she is as the funny, frustrated Amalia. Her crystalline soprano conveys all the hope and worry in “Will He Like Me?” as well as the sudden and utter happiness Amalia feels when she sings “Vanilla Ice Cream” after discovering that Dear Friend and her work nemesis are one and the same.

Matthew Kacergis, who did a national tour as Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid,” is Georg to Kleiner’s Amalia. A veteran of musicals at numerous regional theaters around the country, Kacergis is an appealingly multifaceted actor with an exquisite voice. He imbues Georg’s duets with Amalia with both comedy and sexual tension, and his delivery of the show’s title song becomes a joyous ode to requited love.

Cassidy’s presence in the cast is a poignant one. As Steven Kodaly, a clerk and cad who spends his off hours (and some of his on-the-clock time) pursuing women, Cassidy is taking on a role that won his father Jack a Tony Award in the original production.

On opening night, Cassidy’s mother Shirley Jones — Oscar winner, movie musical star and the mom to David Cassidy’s Keith in TV’s “The Partridge Family” — was in the audience watching her dashing son charm the ladies and the audience. With extensive Broadway, regional, TV and movie credits, Cassidy is a seasoned pro who communicates Kodaly’s narcissistic inability to avoid pursuing whichever woman captures his fancy at the moment, even if that pursuit causes pain to others.

One of those thus injured is Ilona Ritter, his main (but not only) girlfriend. Played with comedic sass by Lauren Weinberg, who was so memorable as Adelaide in the Wick’s “Guys and Dolls,” Ilona becomes a confidante to fellow clerk Amalia and, after “A Trip to the Library,” much luckier in love.

As shop owner Zoltan Maraczek, Paul Carlin finds all the nostalgia in “Days Gone By,” and he navigates the character’s bumpy emotional journey with ease. South Florida actor Barry J. Tarallo brings his warm tenor to the role of Ladislav Sipos, Georg’s fellow clerk and a married family man whose shared wisdom in “Perspective” becomes one of the show’s highlights. Tepper Saffren’s Arpad Lazlo is a charmer of a delivery boy whose ambition becomes apparent in his big solo, “Try Me.”

With Joerder’s clever staging, Kleiner, Kacergis and Tarallo, plus Kevin Robert Kelly as the Head Waiter and ensemble members Dalia Aleman, AJ Cola, Alexandra Frost, Lindsey Johr, Nicole Kinzel, Laura Plyler, Thomas Porat, Brian Reiff and Vince Wingerter, turn the extended Café Imperiale scene at the end of the first act into an amusing, touching musical potboiler.

Jim Buff’s lovely period costumes, Emily Beecher McKeever’s lighting design, Justin Thompson’s sound design and Josieu Jean’s important projection design work together to convey time, place and shifting seasons that culminate in a pre-Christmas frenzy. The set pieces, which come from the Utah Shakespeare Festival, don’t always work comfortably on the Wick stage, but Jean’s projections enhance the atmosphere.

Musical theater fans in South Florida have already had several treats in this early stage of the 2017-2018 season. Though marked by loss before its opening, the Wick’s “She Loves Me” has become an early holiday gift for those who appreciate a time-tested love story gloriously sung.

“She Loves Me” runs through Dec. 23 at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $80. To order, call 561-995-2333 or go to TheWick.org.

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