In show business it’s generally acknowledged that, all other things being equal, comedy is the hardest genre to pull off. Funny is an especially tricky adjective, and it resists dissection.
Bearing that in mind, this season’s holiday offering from Playmakers Repertory Company is a very funny musical. “She Loves Me” is based on the 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Hungarian playwright Miklós László, featuring the romantic adventures of two store clerks, Christmas shopping season, and a knotty case of multiple mistaken identities.
Over the years the original play has been transposed into a parade of award-winning films and musicals. In 1940 it emerged as “The Shop Around the Corner” with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. The Broadway musical adaptation popped up in 1963, and again in 1993 and 2016 revivals. The story was perhaps most famously reshuffled into the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The new production is based on the 2016 Tony-Award winning adaptation, which starred Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi and Jane Krakowski. It runs through Dec. 9, at Playmakers in Chapel Hill.
“If you were to name the top five musicals about love, I would put this one right up there,” says director Kirsten Sanderson, speaking by phone from her home in California. Sanderson was brought on for the project by Playmakers and spent five weeks in Chapel Hill shaping and developing the new adaptation.
Sanderson was hired for her expertise in the genre. Sanderson, a veteran theatrical director considers comedy maestro Blake Edwards her mentor. He’s the prime mover behind “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the Pink Panther films. Sanderson knows comedy, but she says an additional appeal with “She Loves Me” was the challenge of staging a classic and beloved musical.
“Musicals are all about the music and this one has a very famous and notoriously difficult-to-sing score,” she says. “We were fortunate in Chapel Hill to have two really extraordinary singers in the two leading roles.”
That would be Playmakers company members Jenny Latimer and Michael Maliakel as the musical’s star-crossed lovers, Amalia and Georg.
At the opening night performance Nov. 18, the singers earned appreciative hollers for delivering the musical’s intricate lyrics – and hitting those high notes – while navigating some treacherous physical comedy choreography. Latimer deserves some kind of comedic athleticism award for her performance in the Act II number “Where’s My Shoe?”
Sanderson says it’s hard to understate just how difficult this kind of work really is. It takes weeks of preparation and practice for the performers to make the really tricky parts look so light and effortless. Meanwhile, she says, the actors are doing a different kind of heavy lifting with the story and characterizations.
“It’s interesting to me that, in this show, the characters aren’t perfect,” Sanderson says. “They make mistakes and they lie to each other and they do weird things. In their efforts to get by, they screw up from time to time.”
Such characterizations, Sanderson says, make for a different kind of comedy.
“Every time you laugh in this show, you’re not laughing at a joke, you’re laughing at a circumstance,” she says. “The more honestly and seriously the characters take themselves, the funnier it becomes.”
Comedy is hard, but the creative team did have one thing going for them, Sanderson says, and it has to do with an interesting dynamic that’s at the heart of every romantic comedy. The audience wants the young lovers to get together. They want a happy ending.
“There’s some innate human need to see a happy resolution,” Sanderson says. “I don’t consider myself to be a sentimental person, but you get to the end of that play and you really need them to kiss. They need to kiss and she has to kick the leg up into the air. Or nothing has happened.”
What: “She Loves Me” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company
When: Shows through Dec. 9. Dec. 4 is community night, with all tickets $15 for general admission seating. Post show discussions Nov. 21 and 25. Open captioned performance Dec. 2 at 2 p.m.
Where: Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
Tickets: Start at $15; Students tickets start at $10
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org