Entertainment » Theatre

Around the Corner and Across the Years :: Jennifer Ellis on 'She Loves Me'

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Nov 21, 2017

Cats may have nine lives, but a good story will be reincarnated in various forms over and over again throughout time and across different art forms.

Take "She Loves Me," the musical about to open at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. (Yes, that's the same company that used to be called the Stoneham Theater. The name changed at the start of this season.) "She Loves Me" is based on the 1937 play "Parfumerie" by Miklós László, and it's been made into movies at least twice -- first as the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film "The Shop Around the Corner," with Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart, and the again in 1949 as the musical "In the Good Old Summertime," with Judy Garland and Van Johnson... and of course, "You've Got Mail" seems to have been loosely based on the play, too; in any case, it offers many nods to the Lubitsch film.

From play to movie to movie musical to stage musical... the head spins! Adding still more layers to the story is the fact that the stage musical's songs, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, are totally different from the songs in the Garland movie musical from 1949. This is obviously a story that inspires art and into which creative people from different disciplines are happy to pour their talents.

And why not? The basic premise is simple, even classic: A woman and man who can't stand each other in day-to-day life have unwittingly fallen in love because, unbeknownst to them, they are each other's pen pal. (And here we thought e-dating was somehow something essentially new and different. Well, sub sole novum nihil.) Romance and mistaken identity have long been staples of theater, even of musical theater, from Shakespeare and Mozart to -- obviously -- our own time.

The stage musical preserves the setting of the original play. It's Budapest in 1934, and Amalia (Jennifer Ellis) needs a job. With determination and wit she finagles herself a position at Maraczek's Parfumerie, where Georg (Sam Simahk) already works. That's right: These two are the pen-pal lovebirds. They moon over each other's letters while, in person, arguing nonstop.

The production's large cast of 15 also includes familiar faces like Jared Troilo, Aimee Doherty, Nick Sulfaro, Kirsten Sapling, and many others. Helming the production is Ilyse Robbins, who also choreographs, while Matthew Stern provide the music direction. Based on the talent alone, this is going to be an affair to remember. (See what I did there?)

It was a pleasure to meet Jennifer Ellis and chat about the play and the many forms it's taken over the years, her co-stars, and what it is about the mysteries of love that make a story like this spring eternal.


EDGE: This is a classic story about a man and a woman who fall in love through their anonymous letters to each other but have no idea that they also know each other in real life -- where they constantly fight! What drew you to this production? The romantic comedy element? The change to give audiences a fun and nostalgic theater experience?

Jennifer Ellis: I think this is a perfect musical. There is so much to love about it: The relationships, the book, the music, the lyrics! But most of all, I was drawn to the character of Amalia. She's the smartest person in the room -- and she's hilarious. There are precious few roles like this in musical theater. To get to be funny and sing coloratura in the same show is a gift -- and I'm loving every minute of it!

EDGE: The play, originally produced in 1963, was recently revived on Broadway and was a hit. What do you suppose audiences love about it?

Jennifer Ellis: It's irresistible! It's a multigenerational, timeless story. Families can come and enjoy the show together. The story and music are timeless -- and its seriously funny on top of all that. I think we could all use a laugh right now.

EDGE: One thing that audiences have loved -- seemingly from time immemorial -- are love stories centered around mistaken identity. Why is it, do you suppose, that such stories resonate with us? Is it that we're never quite sure we know the people we most love?

Jennifer Ellis: Amalia and Georg unwittingly share their deepest thoughts on immortal love stories, works of art, music... all the while not recognizing the potential for one another. I think many people can relate to holding an impossible standard because of that grand romantic ideal... but I think everyone can relate to wanting to connect with someone on a deep level and to be loved for who you truly are. The idea that that person had been right under your nose but you hadn't really seen them is just fun!

EDGE: You're playing opposite Sam Simahk. Are the two of you doing any channeling of the actors who have played these roles (or roles based on them), such as Judy Garland or Jimmy Stewart? Or are you looking to put your own (perhaps more contemporary?) spin on the characters?

Jennifer Ellis: Sam is incredible, and and we are having so much fun working together.

When I'm approaching a role like this I tend to research a lot of material well in advance of rehearsals and then leave it behind. It's interesting to me to see what choices those brilliant actors made, but I can only bring myself to the role. I just approach it honestly and see what happens!

EDGE: When it comes to portraying a heroine from 1930s Budapest, what sort of process or preparation do you adopt?

Jennifer Ellis: I want to know as much as I can about what day to day life would have been like. I tend to really brush up on my history when I'm researching for a show.

EDGEThe rest of the cast is equally impressive, including Aimee Doherty, Kirsten Salpini, Jared Troilo, and Nick Sulfaro, among others. What's the chemistry like among you all?

Jennifer Ellis: This cast is a dream. I love watching all of these actors work. We have so much fun in rehearsal -- it's impressive that we get all our work done!

EDGE: 1930s Budapest, of course, was a time and place of rising uncertainty and tension, as was much of Europe. Does this play strike you as timely in a similar way for us right now?

Jennifer Ellis: In 'She Loves Me' there is a lot of tension around obtaining and holding on to employment. I think when things are as topsy-turvy as they are right now, it's refreshing to work on a positive story about human connection.

EDGE: As a singer as well as actress, you have music in your toolbox. What does song do for a character that wouldn't be possible without it?

Jennifer Ellis: It's often said that we sing when speaking isn't enough. When the emotion is too intense to simply speak. 'She Loves Me' is a gift in so many ways -- the songs are so brilliantly written, and they flow so beautifully -- there's never a moment where it feels like we hit the brakes on the story because we've arrived at a song. They're brilliant songs, and they all continue the scene. The lyrics are some of the cleverest I've ever heard. Each word is perfectly chosen. They're a joy to sing.

EDGE: Any personal favorites from among the show's songs?

Jennifer Ellis: I say 'This is my favorite!' about five times a day at rehearsal... but it's always true!

EDGE: What projects might you have lined up for after this show?

Jennifer Ellis: Another mistaken identity love story! Shortly after 'She Loves Me' closes, I'll be in 'Shakespeare in Love' at SpeakEasy Stage. 'What's in a name?' is a featured line in both!


"She Loves Me" will play at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham from Nov. 24 - Dec. 23. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.greaterbostonstage.org/she-loves-me.html


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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