Some people like their musical theater edgy and dark. Others like them lighthearted and satirical. As for me, I like a classic musical with beautiful melodies, romance, and just a touch of heartache. If it has a holiday theme, so much the better. Arena Dinner Theatre fulfills my every musical theater wish with She Loves Me, the Harnick/Bock/Masteroff chestnut.
If you’ve seen You’ve Got Mail or The Shop Around the Corner, you know the plot. Boy meets girl via anonymous correspondence. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl coincidentally become professional adversaries without realizing they are one another’s mystery crushes. Boy and girl discover the truth.
Director Reuben Albaugh has assembled some of Fort Wayne’s most seasoned musical theater veterans. It’s a sizeable cast, notable for its collective theatrical experience and talent. Even the smallest roles are filled by performers who frequently carry musicals on their own.
Local rocker (and newly minted attorney) Sean Arata of the band Downstait proves again that there may not be anything he can’t do. His vocals are smooth and dreamy as Georg Nowack, the shy, intelligent dreamer whose self-confidence is shaken at the prospect of actually meeting his romantic correspondent face to face.
Stephanie Longbrake as Amalia Balash channels a young Mary Tyler Moore in the best possible way. She’s poised, beautiful, intelligent, and, yes, she’s got spunk. Her comedic timing and ability to make an audience feel both her joys and her doubts are wonderful to experience.
Halee Bandt and Brock Graham are perfect as the on-again-off-again lovers Ilona Ritter and Steven Kodaly. Bandt is brash but vulnerable as the shop’s cashier who can’t seem to let her two-timing boyfriend go, but her strength and optimism shine through. And Graham somehow manages to be charming even while being smarmy and a little bit vile.
Gary Lanier is lovable and hilarious as Ladislav Sipos, the unassuming shop clerk in whom Georg confides. Chip Davis is strong as Mr. Maraczek the shop owner, whose commanding presence falters when he discovers unhappy news. Arena newcomer Aaron Hawley could not be more adorable as Arpad Laszlo, the ever-sunny young bicycle delivery boy with big ambitions.
Gloria Minnich, Jordan Plohr, and Jake Wilhelm also have their own moments to shine and get laughs even with very little dialogue. Emily Caudill, Emily Arata Grillo, Megan Buss, Olivia Bermes, Kristin Hormann, Elizabeth Smith, and Elliott Mitchell each display gorgeous singing voices and the ability to sing some difficult harmonies and fast-paced lyrics with amazing clarity, thanks in large part to Ben Wedler’s brilliant music direction.
Even the set design (by Corey Lee and Joel Grillo), lighting design (by Brock Eastom), and costume design (by Jill Bixler) are seamless, beautiful, and witty, lending themselves perfectly to the story.
The brilliance of the show is its ability to draw so many characters so richly and completely. This production absolutely lives up to its potential. Get your tickets now, before it sells out.
The ensemble is every bit as talented. AJ Lorenzini and Tyler Hanford very nearly steal their scene as the Waiter and Busboy at the café where the “Dear Friends” are to meet face to face. Whether it’s Albaugh’s direction or their own professional ability to pull back just enough, they hit exactly the right tone for the scene.
She Loves Me — Musical set in a 1930s perfumery with music by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) and book by Joe Masteroff (Cabaret), 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Friday-Saturday, Nov. 23-24, Nov. 30-Dec. 1 and Dec. 7-8; 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9; Friday-Saturday, Dec. 14-15, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622