Leah Fox as Amalia Balash and Shonn Wiley as Georg Nowack are pictured in a scene from "She Loves Me" at the Croswell Opera House.
Opening a show in the shadows of The Croswell’s highest attended theatrical production ever - “Mamma Mia!” and only having two weeks to mount a full-blown, larger than life, high quality musical opus would prove a daunting task for any director. But for Julianne Dolan and set designer Douglas Miller, the oldest theatre in Michigan has done it again with their latest, “She Loves Me,” and boy, oh boy is it a warm and fuzzy treat.
Taking into account the quick turnaround is one thing, watching cast-members and crew from the last production waltz onto stage into this show is something else entirely. You’ll spot about a dozen familiar faces from the aforementioned “Mamma Mia!,” and Croswell alum: Shonn Wiley, who is taking a break from his successful off-Broadway career, and traveling band: Under The Streetlamp, to return to his hometown roots of Adrian, MI. The Croswell has worked overtime getting the word out about his special appearance, and I can see why - this guy is the real deal. Aside from the fact he’s actually in his forties (I say this because, the man has an energy which resembles that of a 22 year old college student) his vocal range and delightful stage presence bursts from the seams, and with an exceptional cast of Croswell favorites; Leah Fox, Sarah Nowak, Alan Gibson, Karl Kasischke, Ashley Fox, and John Bacarella to surround him, it’s hard to find a more suitable crew to pull off a tight schedule and deliver on such an iconic show.
At the start, “She Loves Me” opens on a gorgeous summer day in Budapest circa 1934 - no easy duty to costume, but Pam Krage is again doing what she does best - where a group of employees at a local parfumerie (Maraczek’s Parfumerie, to be precise) arrive to work. You’ve got an innocent and harmless 16 year old delivery boy named Arpad (Gibson - conveying all the right notes as the fragile young apprentice). As for the clerks there’s Georg Nowack (Wiley in a triple axle of a performance) a hardworking and honest salesmen; the mentor and wise-man Sipos (Kasischk bringing his usual talents to the Croswell stage); the busty and glamorous IIona Ritter (Nowak, taking some time away from behind the scenes to deliver a winning performance); and the slimy, lustful womanizer Steven Kodaly (Fox in a scene-stealing, gut-busting portrayal).
Each of these characters have an arch and purpose, with some relationships intertwining (IIona and Kodaly strike up a passionate and not-so secret love affair) while others have already developed (Sipos and Nowack go hand in hand like bread and butter). Together, this staff works endlessly to make sure Mr. Maraczek (Bacarella in a subtle, yet rich performance) is happy and the company is in good standing.
However, when the smart and dashing Amalia Balash wanders in looking for a job, (Fox continuing, as always, to brighten a room with her infectious personality and beautiful vocals), it threatens to upend normal operating procedure. With the aspiration to one day own and operate the store, Georg sees Balash as an obstacle to his grander plan, and often as a hit to his pride, so naturally a wonderful banter of wits, insults, and classic jockeying unfolds - these two couldn’t hate each other more if they tried - leading into the shows purest realization.
In classic rom-com style (this play inspired the popular film “You’ve Got Mail”), Amalia and Georg have been unknowingly penning letters to each other under the surname: “Dear friend.” You see, prior to email and text messages, people either talked via a corded landline, or wrote handwritten letters the old fashioned way, and “She Loves Me” is nothing if not cheesy and old-fashioned, in the best way possible.
It’s a classic case of dramatic irony, in which neither of the two parties know the individual they've been writing letters to the past six months is the other. You’ve likely seen this scenario played out a million times, but the way Dolan and this cast convey the material makes it fresh and engaging (not to mention, Fox and Wiley have immaculate chemistry). Plus, it helps that everyone rises to the task of Jerry Bock's wonderful catalogue of musical theatre tunes, which music director Joseph D. Daniel manages ceaselessly with his entourage of veteran musicians. Songs like “Tonight at Eight” and “Vanilla Ice Cream” remain memorable, while others like Wiley's joyous performance of the titular song “She Loves Me” will bring back memories of seeing Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain” for the first time.
While Dolan and Daniel had their work cut out from a music and staging standpoint, longtime Croswell regular Douglas Miller (in his 45th season, no less) has given “She Loves Me” new birth with a scenic design that does not disappoint, while keeping his signature look polished and primed. Miller's design earning much deserved applause from the audience upon seeing a key transition from Maraczek’s storefront to the beautiful perfumery on the inside. Pay attention to the minor set trimmings, properties, and authentic designs as Miller tends to throw in small details not keen to the average human eye. Likely, upon a second viewing you’ll spot something you missed the first time. He’s just that good.
Even the show's ensemble makes the best of their short stage time. Ensemblist Stephen Kiersey has a ball (and crisp diction!) as a waiter who just wants to preserve a “romantic atmosphere,” and Crosby Slupe steals key laughs despite minimal exposure. An ensemble that can leave such a memorable impression as this one is not to be missed.
And lastly, as any patron that’s been going to The Croswell for the last decade will know, “She Loves Me” held a special place in the heart of the late artistic director Robert Soller, who directed the last iteration of the show in 2009. If he was around to see this show today, and how alive it feels in 2018 - I have a feeling he would be proud of the work that this crew and dedicated cast have contributed to the community.
I fell in love with this show, I think you will too.
IF YOU GO:
"She Loves Me" continues its run at The Croswell Opera House through Sunday July 22nd.
For showtimes and ticket information you can visit the website here or call the the box office at 517-264-7469
This story will appear in The Clinton Local starting Thursday July 19th.
Above photos courtesy of The Croswell Oprea House