Love perfumes the air in ‘She Loves Me’

Four people standing in a perfume shop.
‘She Loves Me’ is set in Budapest, Hungary in the 1930s and features a classic enemies to lovers storyline between lonely parfumerie clerk Georg Nowak and hard-working new employee Amalia Balish.
(Courtesy Emiko Ohta)

As many college students know, finding romance in the modern dating world is hard. The alluring mystery of not knowing how someone dresses, what hobbies they’re interested in and even what their cat’s name might be is entirely dispelled with social media and dating apps. Where can the hopeless romantics of the modern age turn to in search of a purer, more heartfelt romance?

USC Musical Theatre Repertory’s latest production of 1963 rom-com musical “She Loves Me,” based on a book written by Joe Masteroff with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, opened at the Massman Theatre Thursday. Set during the 1930s in a Hungarian parfumerie, the musical tells an endearing and tangled love story that flourishes through the mystery of identity in an exchange of letters.

“She Loves Me” follows the dedicated, yet lonely clerk Georg Nowak (Paolo Portillo, a senior majoring in theatre), as he writes poetic letters to a faceless lover after work at Mr. Maraczek’s (Sam Guillemette, a senior majoring in neuroscience and psychology) parfumerie. When a new clerk, the young and hard-working Amalia Balish (Arya Desai, a junior majoring in theatre and journalism), joins Maraczek’s shop, their stubborn ways collide. Meanwhile, Balish also writes to a lover she has never met. Audience members hold their breath with anticipation for both Nowack and Balish as they plan to meet their supposed partners unaware that they’re writing to one another.

The heart-warming musical features many iconic songs, such as “Vanilla Ice Cream,” performed by Desai and “Ilona,” performed by Jasper Warhus, a sophomore majoring in theatre, as a charming yet devious clerk, Steven Kodaly. There are many other unforgettable characters featured, including a romantically unsuccessful clerk, Ilona Ritter (Jenna Hamdan, a junior majoring in theatre), a wholesome delivery boy, Arpad Laszlo (Jonathan Liu, a junior majoring in computer science) and a hilarious headwaiter (Gregory Ward, a junior majoring in English) who leads a dance number in the middle of a restaurant.

Desai explained that the musical came to life from the dedication of the cast and crew of MTR, an independent student production, to the craft of theatre.

“Everything is produced by students, from directing, the costumes, to casting, to the actors,” Desai said. “We’re all just students working together, there’s no faculty involved. We have a few weeks to prepare this, but it really is just a labor of love … That’s what makes it so incredible, is that [the] people that get involved with this specifically, this organization, really, really care about it.”

Alongside assistant director, junior Grace Wilkerson, director Joy Jaensubhakij, a junior majoring in theatre, sought to bring “She Loves Me” to life at USC after seeing the 2016 Broadway revival proshot in an airplane a few years ago. This is Jaensubhakij’s directorial debut and, with this, her transformation of the musical.

“I made it a point to cast our two leads as [Black, Indigenous and people of color] actors because I feel, as a BIPOC woman myself, I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to see myself in romantic comedies, especially as the lead,” Jaensubhakij said. “I really wanted to show the love and joy that BIPOC stories can have.”

Not only was casting an important directorial choice for Jaensubhakij, but also the incorporation of cultural elements in the show itself, Portillo said.

“I’m of Filipino descent, and [Desai] is part Indian, and [Jaensubhakij] really tried to bring our culture into it,” Portillo said. “So, in our costuming, [Desai] wore traditional Indian wear and I wore traditional Filipino wear called the barong, which is what you would wear for fancy dinners, or special occasions or weddings.”

MTR’s performance of “She Loves Me” left audience members grinning from ear to ear and, most importantly, believing in the power of love.

“It’s a very old show, but I feel like it’s so applicable to today’s world,” Desai said. “Like the emotions Amalia feels, the emotions Georg feels … It’s something that everyone can enjoy because everyone understands what it’s like to be in love and be excited and nervous.”