Theatre UCF’s production of She Loves Me radiates a refreshing charm through its quaint portrayal of 1938 Budapest. The distinctly European feel of the show is carried out well through the set and the music. Tender and genuine performances by many of the actors also contribute to the show’s unique charisma and allure.
She Loves Me centers on a small perfume shop overseen by a demanding yet pleasant owner, Mr. Maraczek (Jarrett Poore). Although business is difficult for the shop’s workers at the beginning of the show, their shared experiences inside and outside their workplace bring them together in unexpected ways.
The show follows Amalia (Sunny Gay) as she establishes herself as the newest worker at the store. She watches as Ilona (Allyson Rosenblum) fluctuates between cold hatred and passionate love for her dashing coworker Kodaly (Julian Kazenas). Sipos (Joe D’Ambrosi) laments hilariously about his situation and his lack of skill or talent. Georg (Terry Farley) and Amalia both strive for a love that seems to remain just out of reach.
As events unfold, the truth about the objects of their desire is obvious to the audience long before it becomes clear to the characters. This dramatic irony imbues She Loves Me with a pervasive sense of tension that inspires the audience to watch, frustrated yet enthralled, until the tension resolves in the play’s final moments.
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The diverse range of sincere and true-to-life characters in She Loves Me lend it a seemingly universal appeal. The actors in Theatre UCF’s production masterfully portray each character’s unique struggles with life and love and manage to give each a memorable depth.
Gay’s Amalia is hardworking, vulnerable and innocent. The songs in which she speculates about her romantic possibilities, “Will He Like Me” and “Vanilla Ice Cream” could easily come off as superficially cute and empty. Instead, Gay imbues them with a touching tenderness and drives home the universal struggle of love battling the fear of judgment and rejection.
Farley does a similarly good job with his character, Georg, whose own desire for love and companionship is expressed with heartfelt excitement in “Tonight at Eight.” Allyson Rosenblum masterfully portrays the strong and resourceful Ilona and her struggle to escape from the charms of Kodaly, whom Kazenas embodies with an over-the-top dramatic flair that fits the character perfectly.
D’Ambrosi nearly steals the show as Sipos, whose struggles with self-worth are made clear through a raucously funny rendition of “Perspective.” His reactions to the drama that constantly occurs between his coworkers are hilarious and all too relatable. Although Arpad, the perfume shop’s delivery boy, seems to exist in the periphery of the show for much of the first act, he comes into clearer focus later on as a motivated young man with his own charms.
Poore brings the shop’s owner, Mr. Maraczek, to life with a performance that takes him from celebratory happiness to crushing despair and back again. His struggles with his marriage, although often occurring offstage, lend the show a darker grittiness that lies beneath its bright appeal.
She Loves Me, while accessible and alluring as a whole, struggles with confronting the serious issues that crop up near the end of the first act and seems to skirt around them rather than addressing them head on.
In addition to the charm and sincerity brought forth by the show’s cast, She Loves Me is an aesthetic masterpiece. Theatre UCF’s small proscenium space is dominated by a turntable that serves as Maraczek’s storefront and spins to reveal the interior of the store. The lighting, designed by Alyx Jacobs, and the character of the set, designed by Joseph Rusnock, evoke a delicate age that makes sense for Hungary in 1938.
Overall, Theatre UCF’s production of She Loves Me, which runs this weekend through March 26, stays true to the show’s nature as a funny and charming feel-good musical. The actors, supported by director Earl Weaver, put forth a memorable and diverse array of relatable and true-to-life characters who are difficult to dislike.
She Loves Me succeeds on the appeal of the universal struggle between the fear of rejection and the desire for love and acceptance.
Alex Storer is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.