THEATRE / Ice cream dream: Paul Taylor and Edward Seckerson salute Bock and Harnick's She Loves Me

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The Independent Culture
The Bock and Harnick Broadway musical She Loves Me first saw the light of day in 1963, thus sharing a birthdate (if nothing else) with the Beatles' 'She Loves You'. As Scot Ellis's wonderfully charming revival of the piece at the Savoy reminds you, these were the days before the great Dissociation of Sensibility in musicals, when writers knew it was possible to be romantic and witty at the same time, unlike now when you tend to be served pretentious slop and hard-boiled cynicism on alternate plates. This perfectly pitched show has sentiment that never cloys into sentimentality and a sense of humour that puts matters into proportion without deflating everything.

Based on a Thirties play by Miklos Laszlo (via Lubitsch's film adaptation The Shop around the Corner), the musical focuses on a pair of feuding clerks in a swish Budapest perfumery who, unbeknown to each other, are conducting a high-minded love affair by letter through a lonely hearts club. Each has idealised expectations of the correspondent, so when John Gordon-Sinclair's appealingly awkward Georg arrives at a rendezvous and realises that his 'Dear Friend' is none other than his colleague Amalia (Ruthie Henshall), he pretends he's only there by coincidence, thus making relations worse between them, before the two are gradually and realistically drawn to admitting their attraction.

If I have a minor cavil, it's that, dramatically, the first half needs a song offering an extended view of the sort of Beatrice-and-Benedick spat we have to take, for too long, on trust. Apart from that, the piece is exquisitely well judged and so, by and large, is this attractively cast production. Henshall may be too conventionally attractive for Amalia, but she brings just the right combination of defensive wit, wistfulness, and lovely singing voice to the role. In 'Ice Cream', that comic inner tussle between duty and desire, she times perfectly the Freudian slips and involuntary thoughts of Georg that keep sidetracking her from the soulful letter she's penning to the 'Friend'. As for the sometimes Sondheim-like wit of the musical lyrics, take this, sung to a bolero beat, by Tracie Bennett's excellent Ilona, a blonde broad who meets a new man after trying to put men behind her by joining a library: 'I have to admit that in back of my mind / I was praying he wouldn't get fresh. / And all of the while I was worrying why / An illiterate girl should attract him. / Then all of a sudden he said that I couldn't go wrong The Way of All Flesh / Which of course is a novel but I didn't know / Or I certainly wouldn't have smacked him . . .'. PT

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick - the composer and lyricist - should run master-classes. Barry Manilow should enrol. Now this is a musical. A modest one, granted: no run of splashy production numbers, no take-home songs with an afterlife of their own. But book, music and pithy lyrics are of one mind.

Every number has a purpose, advancing the narrative, fleshing out the characters, heightening the mood of the moment. The little chromatic twist in the melody of 'I Don't Know His Name' is in itself inquisitive; the high, strangulated repeated note pattern in 'Dear Friend' - bitter-sweet waltz - beautifully sets up the tone of frustration, funny and sad; and was the change of heart from indifference to infatuation ever more amusingly or succinctly conveyed than in the Barbara Cook classic 'Ice Cream'. The wonderful Ruthie Henshall has so many of her vocal qualities: the soubrette soprano top, the hearty belt, the ability to embrace a melody till it hurts. And she doesn't have a monopoly on the showstoppers. Not many musicals can boast a run of four on the trot in the last 30 or so minutes alone.

She Loves Me is a clever, charming score, Broadway to the core, but with enough of a Jewish / Hungarian tang (cue the gypsy fiddler and piano accordion) to lend it a whiff of 1930s Budapest. It's something of a cult among devotees of the genre. Maybe after 30 years (and with Bock and Harnick's masterpiece, Fiddler on the Roof, back in town) its time in the theatre has finally come. ES

The Savoy Theatre, London WC2.

Box-office: 071-836 8888

(Photograph omitted)

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