Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 16 May, 2011

All right, so if the show is set in pre-war Budapest why are the cast using American accents and pre-decimal sterling prices in the script? The former, I think, because the rhythms of Joe Masteroff's book and Sheldon Harnick's lyrics to this 1963 musical adaptation of Miklos Laszlo's Parfumerie are ineluctably American: despite recent pronunciation drift, a rhyme of "clerking"/"working" would sound far too laboured in a cisatlantic voice. As for the prices, well, that £-s-d stuff is so quaint. It adds to the charm.
It is a charming piece of work. Jerry Bock's score combines Sixties bounce with a timeless innocence, and Stephen Mear's direction and choreography have a bright-eyed vivacity, with ideas such as staging a song set in a fin-de-siècle trysting joint as if Bob Fosse were doing La Ronde in period. In a second-act number about the mounting shopping frenzy in the central perfume shop as Christmas approaches, Mear has his chorus deliver essentially the same moves first as self-possessed customers of distinction, then ever less decorously until it is equal parts tarantella and pitched battle (as Amy Ellen Richardson's eyeballs threaten to pop out through her spectacles).
The story itself is familiar through several film versions from Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around The Corner to Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail: the two people who have such an abrasive relationship in the flesh (here, as co-workers in Maraczek's parfumerie) eventually realise that they are the same couple who have fallen in love with each other through an anonymous correspondence. Six years after How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Joe McFadden's ingenuous appeal once again scores big in a Chichester musical; as his opponent/beloved, Dianne Pilkington hits her stride when her character begins to melt and touches on a Madeline Kahn vibe of lovable exasperation. As Mr Maraczek himself, the ever-amiable Jack Chissick goes beyond Sprechgesang and into Growlgesang, and Lee Ormsby steals his single scene as an imperious head waiter. It was an astute piece of programming to put the show (this season's opener) on Chichester's smaller Minerva stage; to fill the main Festival Theatre space, the material would have had to be over-sold, but here it proves chirpily seductive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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