Pen Pals

She Loves Me

Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, through Dec. 20, (215) 785-0100.

I can understand why the 1963 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical She Loves Me has always been a favorite among devotees of American musical theater: it is irresistibly charming.

I've long been a fan of The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch-Samson Raphaelson movie (itself based on a Hungarian play by Nikolaus Laszlo) with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, on which Joe Masteroff based the book for She Loves Me. I'm a sucker for the situation: two coworkers in a downtown Budapest parfumerie, Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash (at Riverside, Christopher Lynn and M. Kathryn Quinlan), loathe one other at work without knowing that they have been anonymous pen pals for months and have fallen hopelessly in love with one another.

Like Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, the situation exploits imbalances of knowledge, generates a series of revelations and semi-revelations, and hinges on a series of misunderstandings and missed opportunities in which people with strong feelings, hopelessly out of sync with one another, face the grave risk of heartbreak, loss and loneliness. No wonder The Shop Around the Corner has been adapted so often: as the Robert Leonard movie In The Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland, as She Loves Me (successfully revived in the 1990s on Broadway and elsewhere), and, even as you read this, as Nora Ephron's new movie You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

If the musical looks backwards to the '30s movie and to interwar Budapest (Bock's score is inflected by Viennese operetta and by Hungarian gypsy violin music), Edward Keith Baker's production at Bristol looks backwards stylistically beyond the early '60s to the '40s and '50s, with salmon-and-gold storefront sets (by Salvatore Tagliarino) that have the charm, and the depth, of laminated placemats.

The production captures all the charm of the musical and of the movie, but shortchanges the risks and dangers that, for emotional masochists like me, constitute the story's greatest interest. Georg, just fired from his job, goes to meet the woman of his dreams in a restaurant, discovers that she is none other than his obnoxious coworker and decides not to tell her; he then sits at her table while she is expecting the man of her dreams, and suffers her insults and abuse. Amalia, wondering whether her beloved is ever going to show up, explains to the headwaiter, "I've waited for him all my life; what's two more hours?" It's enough to make your heart break.

Lynn and Quinlan are earnest and attractive, and they sing well. But their hearts never seemed close to breaking. And so neither did mine.

-Cary M. Mazer