- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
When New Braunfels-reared Nick Mayo was 16, he played Steven Kodaly, an insufferable but charismatic and seductive cad, in the musical “She Loves Me” at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan.
“I was the world’s best teenage Kodaly,” he jokes. “It was my first time living outside of Texas, and I fancied myself the kid who knew every musical. But I’d never heard of it. So I got to discover it fresh. It’s a perfect musical. The quiet one.”
After training at Juilliard and enjoying a career on Broadway and elsewhere, Mayo, now 32, relocated to Austin two years ago and is directing “She Loves Me” at St. Edwards University. It opens April 7 and runs through April 17.
Based on the play “Parfumerie,” by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, the material has been the basis for the movies “The Shop Around the Corner” and “In the Good Old Summertime.” Later, it was adapted as “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The 1963 musical, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (the duo best known for “Fiddler on the Roof”), landed a dream cast that included Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy and Barbara Baxley. It ran 302 performances. Cassidy, who played the original Kodaly, won the Tony Award for best supporting actor, but the production was beaten out by the bigger, broader “Hello, Dolly!”
As Mayo indicates, it is a “quiet” show compared with the flashy, brassy hits of that era, such as “Mame” and “Funny Girl.” Yet “She Loves Me,” which tells of two feuding shop employees unaware that they are secret pen pals, has remained a darling of theater insiders. Its current revival on Broadway has earned rapturous reviews.
“It’s a world where even office antagonisms and anxiety can find an up-tempo synchronicity,” wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times about the revival. “And for those moments when you sense a song in your heart, there’s a first-class orchestra conveniently nearby to help you express yourself in a style that lives up to your bliss.”
Mayo’s first big show in the biz was “The Ritz,” by Texas playwright Terrence McNally, which played at Studio 54, the same Broadway house now host to “She Loves Me.”
“The musical is about lonely hearts and about community,” Mayo says. “Bock and Harnick are the (Clifford) Odets and (Arthur) Miller of musicals. They wrote about culture within the context of community, such as the shtetl in ‘Fiddler’ or boxing culture in ‘Golden Boy.’ The parfumerie in ‘She Loves Me’ is also the equivalent to the theater for theater people, who work day in and day out within a sort of closed community.”
Mayo was pleased with the pool of talent he discovered at St. Ed’s.
“The hardest thing was not casting everyone who auditioned due to the limitations of the piece and the space,” he says. He’s also learning more about Austin’s creative scene from the local designers and the two Equity union actors, Scott Shipman, who plays the crucial role of a cafe headwaiter, and Ev Lunning as the ailing parfumerie owner. Lunning is retiring from St. Ed’s this year, making the show all the more affecting for the team.
Near the center of the musical is Amalia, one of the two lonely-heart letter writers, played in the original by Barbara Cook, one the most respected actors in musical history, who also recently appeared here at Bass Concert Hall.
“She needs to have the soprano of Renée Fleming and the comedic chops of Lucille Ball,” Mayo says. “Amalia has to be alive in a particular way. I cast (student) Cheyenne Barton for all of her. She has a desire to be seen in the same way as Amalia. She’s stunningly beautiful, but not afraid to be messy.”
The other letter-writer, Georg, presents his own challenges.
“Georg can be the best vanilla shake ever,” Mayo says in a sly reference to a key song in the show about vanilla ice cream. “But he’s hiding. This is the time when Georg is shaken to his core. He’s highly neurotic, quirky as hell.”
Finding the right tone for cad Kodaly is “superproblematic.”
“We are not accustomed to that kind of character anymore,” Mayo says. “He’s unapologetically chauvinistic. But you also have to like him. We are helped about by the composer and lyricist, who give him these lovely rumbas and hysterical lyrics. He wants it all and gets it all. So you love to hate him.”
Mayo says that when St. Ed’s leaders approached him to direct this material, he was ready to go.
“These songs live in my head and are part of my emotional vocabulary,” he says. ‘I feel ‘Will He Like Me?’ daily. It’s part of me. I’m that guy who walks around Lady Bird Lake with the musicals of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in my head. ‘Tonight at Eight’ is always there. ‘Try Me’ is always there.”
Mayo feels that like most classics, “She Loves Me” stands up to varied interpretations.
“But you’ll never get away from that music-box feel,” he says. “No matter how you try to bring dark shadows into ‘She Loves Me,’ its light will prevail.”