As a teenager blasting The Cure, Joy Division and Bauhaus through my miserable eardrums, I would not have found any solace in the 1963 musical She Loves Me. I just wouldn’t have been able to detect or separate the melancholy lyrics from the buoyant music. However, even in this most distressing of years — 2016, still not yet over, somehow — this San Francisco Playhouse production attended to and temporarily cured most of my depressive tendencies.
With a confirmed vulgarian about to set down the laws of the land, a musical that praises vanilla ice cream at its emotional epicenter unexpectedly charmed my socks off. These calcified tear ducts started welling up by the start of the third number.
Susi Damilano directs the large and talented cast as a coherent ensemble — no one seems out of place in the 1930s setting. They achieved an unforced intimacy with the audience and with each other. Georg Nowack, the male lead, is meant to be a strait-laced stiff. But Jeffrey Brian Adams, more expressive and expansive here than in S.F. Playhouse’s recent musical City of Angels, brings out the character’s warmth and wit in each successive scene. You can see his shoulders loosening up every time he comes in contact with Amalia Balash (Monique Hafen), the girl he falls in love with.
The book, by Joe Masteroff, who turns 97 this week, is a musical update of Pride and Prejudice — or, if you prefer, Much Ado About Nothing. As one character notes, Amalia and Georg are in love with each other: They just don’t know it yet. At first, they verbally spar, tangling each other’s emotions with unintentional putdowns and frequent misunderstandings. Adams and Hafen have believable chemistry, but it’s when they sing together that the harmonies in their melding voices confirm what the audience can already hear. They are a matching pair. If only they’d let their guards down!
Hafen, as Amalia, is a deceptively sunny performer. She’s playing a petulant girl, intensely yearning for love. It’s Hafen’s own knowing sense of humor about her character’s follies that makes Amalia likable, and, ultimately, endearing. She has a tricky job to make Amalia’s myopia appealing, too. We watch as Hafen creates enough space for the girl to mature, to have epiphanies through song. The audience believes her youth and inexperience when she sings, “Will He Like Me?” Later, we are also thrilled when she realizes that Georg is in love with her. What one quart of vanilla ice cream can do for a young woman’s heart!
But Amalia and Georg aren’t the only ones struggling with love. Mr. Maraczek (Michael Gene Sullivan), their boss and the owner of a perfume shop, is in a failing marriage. It was Sullivan’s rendition of “Days Gone By” that sets the underlying tone of wistful nostalgia. His age and experience informed Georg about life before and after a traumatic event. She Loves Me, though, doesn’t settle for being maudlin.
As Ilona, Nanci Zoppi’s stage presence counteracted any tendency of the musical’s shift toward self-pity. Her character, a Marilyn Monroe-like sex bomb, was as equally adept at swinging her hips as she was at conveying strength and verve. Her songs were comic tours de force. Two of them — “I Resolve” and “A Trip to the Library” — were, as the man behind me whispered, home runs. Sure, when Jan. 20, 2017, rolls around like a doom-laden juggernaut, I might break out “Disintegration” again, but She Loves Me is cheering, despite my current state of anhedonia, and generously so.
She Loves Me through Jan. 14 at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St., 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph