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Review: 'She Loves Me' — what's not to love?

The device of one member of a pair of lovers being clueless about the other's identity goes back through Shakespeare's transvestite comedies to Leda and the Swan and beyond. The deal in "She Loves Me" is that the he and the she are lovers in letters to each other, but each is unaware of the other's identity in real life, where they're like oil and water.

That was the central conceit of "Parfumerie," a 1937 comedy by the Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo. Hollywood knows a cinematic killer app when it sees one, and it adapted the quarrelling-double-blind lovers trope for the movies in 1940's "The Shop Around the Corner," in 1949's "In the Good Old Summertime," and in 1998's "You've Got Mail" (in which Meg Ryan's bookstore was archly called the Shop Around the Corner).

In 1963, the story became a Broadway musical with book by Joe Masteroff and music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. It's been revived here and there, including both on Broadway and in London in the 1990s. Now it lives again — boy, does it live — in a bright new production that opened Saturday night in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre.

In the now-vanished Broadway of nearly half-a-century ago, "She Loves Me" was an anomaly, a "small musical" with smart, sensitive songs and real-ish people amid a brassy Broadway dominated by the likes of "Hello Dolly!" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." It was unique and sweet and still is, perhaps in part because the Broadway of the play's era is a world that has vanished almost as completely as that of Central Europe before World War II.

In the musical comedy world of 1930s Budapest, retail clerks wear suits to work (elegant creations by designer Miranda Hoffman) and call each other Mr. and Miss. Georg Nowack (Mark Bedard), a nerdy, long-time clerk in Mr. Maraczek's parfumerie, gets letters from "Dear Friend," a woman he's never met but with whom he's infatuated. When Amalia Balash (Lisa McCormick) wins a job in the parfumerie through intelligence and pluck, she and Georg take an instant dislike to one another.

Que up the music. Quick. Because "She Loves Me" is full of songs — 24 according to the program, although a couple of numbers get reprises, and there's the overture and the curtain call. One reason there are so many songs, Rebecca Taichman, who directed (brilliantly), explains in her notes, is that Masteroff wrote a non-musical script. Then Bock and Harnick set it all to music, sometimes even using passages from Bock's dialog as lyrics.

The result is a long list of quirky, intelligent songs that generally move the narrative along. And just when you think one doesn't, it turns out to be a bridge between a character's inner and outer worlds, and to deepen the character.

Some of the best belong to Amalia. OSF newcomer McCormick, a lovely actor and wonderful singer, brings down the house as she leaps onto her bed to belt out the climax to "Ice Cream." Bedard, whom audiences will remember as Truffaldino from last year's "The Servant of Two Masters," can sing, too, as witness the title song. The leads are supported by some of OSF's best actors, all of whom are ever ready to break into song at the drop of a hat, or a cheesy, musical cigarette box, as the case may be.

Several subplots enrich and support the Georg/Amalia story. Maraczek (Michael J. Hume) suspects his wife is cheating on him. Mr. Kodaly (Michael Elich) is a cad who ill-uses tough/vulnerable Miss Ritter (Miriam A. Laube, who kills throughout, but especially in "A Trip to the Library").

As Georg and Amalia have the requisite misunderstandings, there's not a weak scene. One of the best takes place in a romantic restaurant with an overbearing waiter (Don Donohue) and a roomful of wacky lovers/diners.

Although "She Loves Me" is best-known for its intelligent writing, lilting music and funny lyrics, a word must be said about the production. Guest designer Scott Bradley's delicate, eye-candy set will knock your senses for a loop. It employs semi-transparent screens (they may remind you of Alex Proyas's eye-popping 1998 film "Dark City") to render Mr. Maraczek's store, a Budapest street, a cafe, Amalia's flat, all while teasing the audience with glimpses of Darcy Danielson's crack seven-piece orchestra playing backstage.

Four artists, no less, get program credits for the show's music and choreography, not counting Taichman or Danielson and her orchestra, and each is a guest artist. So OSF, despite its formidable talent roster, is getting a welcome infusion of new blood.

If there's a quibble with "She Loves Me" it's that, at nearly three hours, it feels long, but much of that is clearly the result of constant, extended applause. But "She Loves Me" is smart, funny, heartwarming theater, so let's not quibble.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.