Doug Swenson in Four Season Theatre's She Loves Me
Skip that work party. Buy pre-made gingerbread cookies. Do whatever it takes to make time this holiday season to go see the Four Seasons Theatre production of She Loves Me at the Overture Center Playhouse before it closes on Dec. 16. Simply put, it's one of the best shows I've seen in Madison in a long time.
Based on the same play that inspired the film You've Got Mail, She Loves Me turns the love-at-first-sight myth on its side. Set in 1930s Hungary, Georg and Amalia are salesclerks at a perfume shop. From the first day they meet, they drive each other crazy...and not in a good way. Little do they know, the person they spat with is the same one they are falling in love with in the letters they write to anonymous pen pals. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, Amalia and Georg get to know each other off the page and realize that they might get along after all.
Directed by Brian Cowing, this production gets everything right. On opening night, the orchestra was so good, I forgot it was there. Instead of simply embellishing the action, the musicians, under the direction of Eric Anderson, infused scenes with energy. Set design and props are kept simple, yet rich in detail. A few display booths filled with dozens of tiny perfume bottles turn the stage into a perfume shop. The women in particular were beautifully costumed: They dazzled in jewel-toned dresses, pearls, and light-catching brooches.
From the biggest role to the smallest, each cast member gave an outstanding performance at Friday's show. The ensemble members play an array of unnamed parts and don't have many lines, but were lead-worthy on stage. Standout songs "A Romantic Atmosphere" and "Twelve Days to Christmas" especially depend on ensemble talent.
As Amalia and Georg, Tamara Norden Brognano and Doug Swenson are a perfect match. Feuding or falling in love, their chemistry is palpable. Brognano's Amalia is complex: She's got enough gumption to march into the perfume shop demanding a job, but her bravado hides her loneliness. Doug Swenson's Georg is even more layered: He's a good guy with a bit of darkness to him. When he shows up at the café where Amalia is waiting to meet her pen pal, his vulnerability manifests as cruelty.
The other cast members are equally good. As delivery boy Arpad, lanky Joel Roberts clowns around, looking goofy and handsome at the same time. Mark Snowden is fantastic as Mr. Maraczek: He's cartoon-like and good-hearted, a Hungarian Mr. Fezziwig. As Ilona, Meghan Randolph is sassy while wearing her heart on her sleeve. She's fun to watch; she brightens up the stage with just-right comedic timing.
She Loves Me is a delightful, magical show. I didn't want it to end. But it did, and when it was over, a thrilled audience offered the cast and crew an enthusiastic standing ovation. While standing ovations have become so ubiquitous, they don't mean much anymore, She Loves Me truly deserved this one.
I happily rose to my feet.