'She Loves Me' at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre

Special to The Times

Unabashedly awash in romantic froth, "She Loves Me" is one classic Broadway musical that needs no dark reenvisioning to remain resonant. Since its 1963 debut, a big part of this show's enduring appeal is precisely its invulnerability to cynicism.

In sensible acknowledgment, director-choreographer Kirby Ward serves up a purist's delight with an emotionally and musically pitch-perfect revival for Ventura's Rubicon Theatre.

Set in a fanciful 1930s Budapest, this charming romantic fable revolves around two feuding clerks in a cosmetics shop who unknowingly correspond as anonymous lonely-hearts pen pals. Creators Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joe Masteroff (book) drew on "Parfumerie," the same Miklos Laszlo play that inspired the film comedies "The Shop Around the Corner" and "You've Got Mail." What keeps adapters coming back to Laszlo's plot is its elegant use of pseudonymous communication to peel back layers of illusion, pride and stubbornness, enabling two lonely hearts who can't stand each other to realize they're a perfect match.

As mild-mannered head clerk Georg Nowack and his headstrong antagonist, Amalia Balash, Kevin Symons and Kim Huber head an ensemble that proves equally distinguished in singing and acting.

Whether at war or in peace, the leads' chemistry is consistently appealing. They're particularly adept with the sly contrasts between male and female romantic expectations and apprehensions unleashed by artificial intimacy with a stranger they've never met. In anticipating a rendezvous with their mystery paramours, Georg focuses on logistics, dreads making a faux pas and squirms with impatience ("Tonight at Eight"), Amalia obsesses on image, self-confidence and whether he'll see her for who she is ("Will He Like Me?").

Symons projects an affability and ease in his own skin reminiscent of James Stewart (who not coincidentally played the same role in "The Shop Around the Corner"). Huber's endearingly frenetic Amalia hits all the right notes, from an inventive sales pitch ("No More Candy") to heartbreaking abandonment as she sits alone in a restaurant ("Dear Friend") to comically operatic joy at a little act of kindness ("Vanilla Ice Cream").

Topping the fine supporting performances are George Ball, as the benevolent boss, bringing his eloquent baritone to bear on a nostalgic waltz celebrating "Days Gone By," and Jamison Stern as the smarmy office Lothario.

Intimacy and deceptive simplicity are the hallmarks of the tenderhearted Bock-Harnick songs, which (in contrast with their epic score for "Fiddler on the Roof" that would follow a year later) shun "big hit" and production numbers in favor of short, sprightly tunes that seamlessly advance the story. Live four-piece musical accompaniment under Lloyd Cooper's direction benefits from Rebecca Kes- sin's nicely balanced sound design.

Scenic designer Thomas S. Giamario's unfolding puzzle box set defies physics in squeezing the shop's interior and exterior, and other locales, into limited stage space -- only the cluttered restaurant dance number is in noticeable need of more elbow room.

For all its cheery optimism, "She Loves Me" was remarkably mature in frankly depicting sexual promiscuity, betrayal and greed as the backdrop that gives real weight to its happy ending.

"She Loves Me," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 28. $34-$57. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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