Two Hearts in Waltz Time

She Loves Me delights despite a ramshackle production.

Maryann Nagel (right), half of the Cleveland acting - supertandem.
Maryann Nagel (right), half of the Cleveland acting supertandem.
If you want a dose of future shock where the musical is concerned, go see Moulin Rouge. In this neurotic film, a gaudy-hued cast lip-synchs snatches of anachronistic ballads in a freak-show Belle Epoque Paris. The film's dubious pleasures are no more sincere than those of an automated Macy's window stuck in high gear.

If you're looking for its antithesis, a sweet reminder of an age when the musical was filled with tenderness, we heartily endorse Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, and Joe Masteroff's She Loves Me. Even presented with half-wattage, as it is at Lakeland Theatre, it's akin to discovering gourmet Hungarian pastry after a lifetime of desserts doused in Cool Whip. Underappreciated and obliterated by the shadow of Hello, Dolly! when it opened in 1963, it has become in succeeding decades the cult favorite of musical connoisseurs. Its score, composed by the creators of Fiddler on the Roof, has the same capacity for encapsulating an entire way of life. Bock's music is woven of gypsy violins out of Liszt, waltzes of romantic longing by way of various Strausses, and sly references to Ravel. Harnick's lyrics manage to capture in rhyme the sparkle and wit of its source material: Ernst Lubitsch's perfect 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. It was also the source of a Judy Garland musical and the recent Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy You've Got Mail.

In musical film history, there are two exquisite examples of moments when the spoken word can no longer express an emotion, and song and dance take over. These are when a teenage Garland sings "Over the Rainbow" and Gene Kelly dances down the boulevard to "Singin' in the Rain." In Act Two of She Loves Me, there are two such felicitous moments. Two bickering clerks in a notions store, Georg and Amalia, are unknowingly conducting an anonymous lonely-hearts correspondence with each other. There is an aborted meeting in a café, where he learns the truth and she thinks she has been jilted by "Dear Friend." The next morning, he drops by her flat to bring her a pint of vanilla ice cream and begins to reveal his hidden gentle side. After he leaves, Amalia's thoughts keep returning to her growing affection for her once-detested co-worker and in her delight in his gift. As she scales coloratura heights, spinning with delight in her pajamas and kicking her bare feet in the air, we see the evolution of confusion into delight, then those first drops of ambrosia that come with emerging infatuation. With pure melody wedded to universal emotion, this is one of the great moments in musical theater. Then, to top off the exultation, we see Georg outside in the snow, reviewing his tempestuous relationship with Amalia and finally reaching the happy conclusion that "she loves me." Throwing off his coat and kicking up his heels, he trumpets the joy of finding his true love. As in the very best of musical theater, human wants and desires are translated into the poetry of song and dance.

With its postage-stamp stage and meager resources, Lakeland manages to realize only half of this musical's limitless pleasures. This is a show that craves a budget for continental atmosphere, effortless elegance, and a company that glows whether singing, dancing, or emoting. The reality here is a colorless set, an underpopulated chorus, drab costumes, and wigs that appear to be attacking the cast.

Yet a valiant cast preserves the musical's elegant spirit. Curt Arnold's persnickety waiter, David Robeano's paradoxically vibrant-cowardly clerk, and Joel S. Nunley's weasel-like gigolo all coalesce into gallant support for the evening's two lovers.

As Georg and Amalia, Greg Violand and Maryann Nagel, Cleveland's second most renowned acting couple after Reuben and Dorothy Silver, are at their professional peak, displaying a frayed gentility in their roles. Wearily falling into each other's arms for a lovely Christmas Eve pairing, they seem each other's last chance, thus adding a sprig of poignancy to the enchantment.

If you get an early start, you can just make it to Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival for a quick tea before curtain time. It's worth the three-hour journey to experience the festival's flawless theatrical archaeology, specializing as it does in plays that charmed our forebears.

For those who thirst after whimsy, there is a Peter Pan that is equal parts imagination (adult lost boys, mermaids who dance to Fred Astaire), spectacle (a crocodile bigger than Godzilla), and undiluted English charm. J.M. Barrie himself would have personally blessed this production with fairy dust.

Demonstrating the festival's panache with musicals is the rowdy and bawdy re-creation of an English music hall in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

For those who savor the glories of Broadway's past, there's a perfectly wrought revival of William Inge's Picnic. Bursting with Tennessee Williams's sexuality, a stud takes off his undershirt, and a whole town goes to pieces with Chekhovian longing.

The Millionairess is third-tier George Bernard Shaw, but it's rendered as delectably crisp and flaky as the scones sold in the local bakery. The Noël Coward one-act Shadow Play is as graceful and ethereal as theater can get without floating away. The one misstep is a wretched stage version of Laura, a bilious afterthought to a great movie.

Tickets are at a premium, so act quickly. After all, man cannot live on Tony n' Tina's Wedding alone.