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SF Playhouse’s ‘She Loves Me’ a sweet holiday treat

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Monique Hafen and Jeffrey Brian Adams appear in San Francisco Playhouse’s “She Loves Me.” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

Look out, Ebenezer Scrooge, and move over, Nutcracker. “She Loves Me,” which opened Wednesday in a new San Francisco Playhouse production, is making a strong bid to be this year’s holiday hit.

Based on the Hungarian play “The Parfumerie,” the 1963 musical by Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) is a charmer. Featuring delectable songs and dance numbers, and a love story set during the days before Christmas, it’s as sweet and seasonal as a bowl of eggnog.

The story opens in the Budapest perfume shop of Mr. Maraczek, where head clerk Georg Nowack meets new hire Amalia Balash. In their initial encounter, they pretty much hate each other on sight.

What they don’t realize — and we quickly come to understand — is that they’ve already established an epistolary relationship. Responding to a “lonely hearts” ad, they write to each other anonymously, pouring out the secrets of their souls in letters addressed to “Dear Friend.” (The original play also inspired films such as “The Shop Around the Corner” and “You’ve Got Mail.”)

The action’s set in 1937, but director Susi Damilano gives her production a few contemporary tweaks, including a same-sex couple in the pivotal Act 1 café scene. But this is essentially a nostalgic vision, and the designs — costumes by Abra Berman, lighting by Thomas J. Munn and a revolving set by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott — keep it anchored in the era.

The performances vary. Jeffrey Brian Adams is a rather generic Georg, but his singing, particularly in the title song, is lovely. As Amalia, Monique Hafen is an appealing comic presence, but her reedy soprano acquires a harsh edge.

In the supporting cast, Michael Gene Sullivan is a sympathetic Maraczek. Nanci Zoppi’s is ideal as the bad-girl-gone-good Ilona, and Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. is smooth as her sometime boyfriend, Kodaly.

Joe Estlack earns laughs as the affable Ladislav, Nicholas J. Garland is an energetic Arpad, and Brian Herndon is irresistible as the world-weary Waiter.

Music director David Aaron Brown does a fine job of leading the band, stationed on upper tiers, through the score’s woozy waltzes, peppy tunes and wondrous love songs, and Kimberly Richards choreography dazzles.

As Georg and Amalia inch toward love, the show becomes warmer, brighter; the final rush, with carols and customers filling the shop on Christmas Eve, brings it all to an effervescent climax. In those moments, “She Loves Me” is a pretty sweet treat.

REVIEW
She Loves Me
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. select Sundays; closes Jan. 14
Tickets: $30 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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