Holiday cheer in SF Playhouse’s sparkling She Loves Me

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Amalia Balash (Monqiue Hafen) and Georg Nowack (Jeffrey Brian Adams) find love in the streets of Budapest in front of Maraczek’s parfumerie in the musical She Loves Me, a San Francisco Playhouse production. Below: Shop clerk Ilona Ritter (Nanci Zoppi) is seduced by co-worker Steven Kodaly (Rodney Earl Jackson Jr.). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The 1963 musical She Loves Me is just a little gem of a musical – full of melody and charm and camaraderie and romance. The recent Broadway revival made a case for the show as sturdy, funny showcase for actors who can perfectly balance realism and musical comedy in a way that makes the show feel intimate and lived in even while it traffics in song and dance.

Just in time for the holidays, San Francisco Playhouse polishes this gem to a sparkling shine. Director Susi Damilano and a fine ensemble of actors and musicians deliver the Playhouse’s most consistently rewarding musical yet.

Apparently Hungarian-born playwright Miklós László stumbled onto an irresistible storyline when he penned the play Parfumerie in 1937 about store clerks who loathe each other on sight without realizing they’ve already fallen in love through letters they’ve shared in a lonely hearts club. The play became the gold-standard 1940 Ernst Lubitsch movie The Shop Around the Corner starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, and just a few years later in 1949 it became the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime. Audiences apparently love being in the know about the protagonists long before they have any clue that fate and coincidence has mashed up their love lives and their work lives. (The 1998 Tom HanksMeg Ryan rom-com You’ve Got Mail is also a riff on the story, but…blech.)

Writer Joe Masteroff expertly adapted the original play for the Broadway stage with a perfectly calibrated score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the duo that would have its biggest hit in Fiddler on the Roof) that features irresistible tunes. Just try to get the title song out of your head and “Will He Like Me?” is as emotionally honest a ballad as Broadway ever produced. The musical is so masterful (disarmingly so) it can make a sexual awakening at a library or the heart-expanding joy of vanilla ice cream into pure melodic joy.

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Damilano’s ebullient production features a wonderful five-piece band headed by music director David Aaron Brown that sounds much larger and fuller than it is, with rich violin, woodwinds, brass and accordion giving real warmth and vitality to the score. So from the moment the overture begins, the spell is cast, and Damilano and her actors never break it.

As the central lovers/fighters, Monique Hafen as Amalia and Jeffrey Brian Adams as Georg, have a nice chemistry that anchors the production and makes you care whether or not they end up together. They are both vocally assured, and the one-two punch of her “Vanilla Ice Cream” followed by his “She Loves Me” is sheer musical theater bliss.

For a small Budapest perfume shop, Maraczek’s employs a large number of clerks, but that’s good for the musical. MVP award goes to Joe Estlack as journeyman Ladislav Sipos, and also doubles as a wonderfully noodle-legged dancing waiter at the Café Imperial. And then there’s scene stealer Nanci Zoppi as Ilona Ritter, whose supposedly secret relationship with co-worker Steven Kodaly (Rodney Earl Jackson Jr.) leads her to heartbreak and then to glorious self-realization. Zoppi’s “I Resolve” and “A Trip to the Library” are stellar, and her duet with Hafen on “I Don’t Know His Name” is a beautiful moment of backroom bonding. Jackson is marvelously slinky on his two big numbers, the seductive “Ilona” and the FU to his coworkers, “Grand Knowing You.”

As the gruff but lovable Mr. Maraczek, Michael Gene Sullivan has a sweetly melancholic song (“Days Gone By”) and Nicholas J. Garland as young delivery boy Arpad is a constant bright spot, especially when he comes into his own on “Try Me.”

A jewel needs a showcase to really sparkle, and set designers Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott provide a marvelous world for these characters to inhabit. A Budapest street becomes the cosmetics-filled shop thanks to an efficient turntable, but further spins reveal a swanky nightclub (featuring a droll headwaiter played by Brian Herndon), and another portion of the set unfolds to reveal Amalia’s messy bedroom. It all looks great, assisted greatly by the lighting design of Thomas J. Munn.

Though it’s not a holiday show per se (it begins in the fall and ends on Christmas Eve), She Loves Me makes for ideal December/January entertainment. People squabble and suffer and ultimately come together in warmhearted ways, all the while singing charming songs. Sounds like a pretty ideal holiday to me.

She Loves Me continues through Jan. 14 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Grins, gams and gumshoes in SF Playhouse Angels

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Private investigator Stone (Brandon Dahlquist, left) exclaims to mystery writer Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) that he would be nothing without him in the San Francisco Playhouse production of City of Angels. Below: Stine is seduced by movie studio secretary Donna (Monique Hafen). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

It’s real vs. reel in the San Francisco Playhouse summer musical, City of Angels, a delightfully jazzy take on film noir, greed the constant battle between commerce and art.

This 1989 Broadway hit, with a dazzling score by the great Cy Coleman (music) and David Zippel (lyrics) and a genuinely funny book by Larry Gelbart (whose credits include M*A*S*H and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) is a real treat, and it’s nice to see that SF Playhouse’s musicals just get stronger and stronger. Director Bill English marshals his resources effectively and also contributes a set that makes terrific use of rear wall projections (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) and makes a convincing split between the slimy real world of 1940s Hollywood and the grimy black-and-white world of cinematic private detectives, missing daughters and murderous plots.

Musical director Dave Dobrusky heads an 11-piece band that handles the jazzy riffs of Coleman’s score well and add some nice shiny, brassy blasts to keep things lively. There are torch songs, comedy songs, vocalese numbers and a couple Broadway-style showstoppers, and Dobrusky’s band handles it all with period pizzazz.

At the center of the dueling stories are Stine, the writer (Jeffrey Brian Adams), and Stone (Brandon Dahlquist), the private detective and the creation of the writer. Stine is in Hollywood turning his hit novel into a screenplay for studio head Buddy Fiddler (a robust Ryan Drummond), who likes to put his stamp on everything, from the script to the script girls. Stine is learning the art of compromise in adapting his novel for the screen and watching everything that made the book interesting evaporate as the story transitions to the screen.

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Adams and Dahlquist are both excellent as conflicting aspects of the writer’s personality. Their big duet, “You’re Nothing Without Me,” concludes Act 1 in the bang-up way it should, though the reprise at show’s end doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

Director English tends to underplay the comedy aspect of this musical comedy, leaning more into the shadows of the film noir world instead. This is most apparent in the sterling comedy number “You Can Always Count on Me” sung by the actor playing secretaries to Buddy in the real world and to Stone in the film world. In this production, that falls to Monique Hafen, who performs the number with the brio of a Kit Kat girl wandered in from Cabaret. There’s pathos in the song to be sure, but the dramatic business undercuts the comedy.

The comedy MVP award goes to Nanci Zoppi who plays a wannabe widow in the movie and a studio head’s wife in the real world. It’s the latter role that gives her a chance to add some real comic zest to the show. It’s reassuring when the women take over the stage because, in true film noir and 1940s Hollywood fashion, they’re mostly reduced to sidekicks, bad choice makers, schemers and seductresses (and the choreography has a tendency, especially in Act 2, of sending them down to their knees).

At just over 2 1/2 hours, this City of Angels keeps up a peppy pace, and the set and the sharp performances clearly delineate the increasingly complicated relationships between reality and cinema while the hot band and strong voices give the movie world a nice Broadway bang.

City of Angles continues through Sept. 17 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Performances make Dogfight musical sing

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Rose (Caitlin Brooke) and Eddie (Jeffrey Brian Adams) attend a suspicious party in the musical Dogfight at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Marines (from left, Nikita Burshteyn, Adams, Brandon Dahlquist, Andrew Humann, Aejay Mitchell and Andy Rotchadl) celebrate their leave atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There are two very good reasons to see the musical Dogfight at San Francisco Playhouse. The 2012 stage adaptation of the 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor has its moments (mostly thanks to the emotional score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), but what really makes it connect are the lead performances by Jeffrey Brian Adams as a U.S. Marine with more depth under his gruff military exterior than even he may realize and Caitlin Brooke as a San Francisco waitress/folk singer who is smarter, stronger and more compassionate than anyone the Marine has ever known (or probably ever will know).

The premise of the show is a harsh one. A band of Marines lands in San Francisco the night before they ship out to Asia and, we can surmise, to the Vietnam conflict. It’s Nov. 21, 1963. No one knows President Kennedy will be assassinated the next day in Dallas, and on this night, the Marines engage in the age-old tradition of a “dogfight.” The Marine who parades the ugliest date across the dance floor at a dive bar wins the pot.<.p>

Private Eddie Birdlace (Adams) is especially gung-ho about the night’s event, as are his two buddies, whose names also start with B: Boland (Brandon Dahlquist) and Bernstein (Andrew Humann). The “three Bs” scour the streets of San Francisco for potentially prize-winning dogs (and also they wouldn’t mind getting laid), and Eddie wanders into a diner, where he hears Rose (Brooke) strumming a guitar and working on a song. There’s not really any universe in which Brooke could possibly be considered a “dog,” but costumer Tatjana Genser does her best to render the actor unattractive, especially in a yellow party dress she wears to accompany Eddie, after much persuasion, to the bar where she will unwittingly become a contestant in a hateful contest.

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The songs in Act 1 include a rousing Marines on the town number, “Some Kinda Time,” which features the hyper-masculine choreography of Keith Pinto, a sleazy “let’s bag the dogs” number (“Hey Good Lookin'”) and a terrific ballad for Rose, “Nothing Short of Wonderful.” The one musical misstep here is the title song, sung by Rose and the winner of the dogfight, Marcy (Amy Lizardo). The song is strident and hard on the ears, which is the exact opposite of the rest of the score, which lives in the emotional strata where pop meets show tune – territory that feels reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown and Duncan Sheik.

One of the big challenges for book writer Peter Duchan is to make us care about Marines behaving badly. Sure, they’re shipping off to serve their country, but they are, in essence, assholes. We get to know Eddie best of all, and while he’s never quite likable, we at least begin to understand him, and the fact that he finally recognizes Rose for the wonderful person she is, definitely works in his favor. Eddie’s pals, on the other hand, are just crass stereotypes of soldiers gone wild, attempting to whore it up and ending up (secretly) in tears but still retaining bragging rights to protect the fragile (and enormous) male ego.

Act 2 has a harder time resolving the Eddie-Rose love story, shipping Eddie and friends off to the war and then flashing forward four years to 1967 when returning soldiers were spat on by hippies in the streets of San Francisco. The attempt to frame the story in a larger context ends up diminishing the central love story and providing a pat ending that feels tacked on rather than emotionally earned.

Director Bill English, who also designed the multi-level set dominated by a leaning tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, guides a strong cast through the two-plus-hour show, and musical director Ben Prince and his six-piece band help find all the emotion in the (mostly) rich Pasek-Paul score.

Dogfight isn’t a perfect musical, but its central love story, especially as brought to life by Adams and Brooke, who couldn’t be more emotionally grounded and powerful, has us sitting up and begging for more.

Dogfight continues through Nov. 7 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit