The first of many holiday shows, She Loves Me may well turn out to be this season's best. This delightfully quirky musical has been given a delicious, intimate staging by the South Suburban Theatre Company, with a charming cast, fine direction and a very cool set.

The action takes place circa 1930--probably somewhere in Eastern Europe. The master of a small perfumery hires a new clerk--a young lady with an impressive knack for sales (she can sell a fat lady a candy box that warns her not to eat sweets) and a sweetly romantic disposition. Lovely Amalia Balash is thrown headlong into conflict with the head clerk, Georg Nowack, and the two spar like cats--willfully misunderstanding each other because they're secretly attracted to one another.

The major complication here involves anonymous love letters--Georg and Amalia, it turns out, have been writing letters to each other via the newspaper's lonely hearts club. As the day approaches for them to meet, Georg discovers who his "Dear Friend" letters have been going to. But the couple's habit of sparring is so deeply entrenched that he fails to make himself known to her.

Meanwhile, back at the shop, the boss, Mr. Maraczek, suspects Georg of cuckolding him and gets nastier and nastier until Georg quits in a huff. Naturally, Georg is not guilty--another clerk, Steven Kodaly, does all the philandering while his girl, Ilona, laments his neglect and fumes over his infidelities. Ilona and Amalia have one of the most charming duets of the evening, "I Don't Know His Name," in which the two discuss men from their very different perspectives: Amalia is innocent, Illona is world-weary.

As Christmas approaches, Georg begins to court Amalia, again without telling her he is "Dear Friend." And when he springs the news, she recognizes in him all the best traits of the man who wrote the letters.

Director Bev Newcomb-Madden keeps the actors moving in graceful swirls about the stage. Her excellent set (designed by Richard Pegg and Randy Allen) includes a turntable--we can be outside the shop one moment and inside the next, and she makes the most of every inch of it. But best of all, she has chosen her cast with a keen eye, not just a good ear: Everybody looks the part. Lovely Joan Korte plays the blond not-so-bimbo Illona with a good deal of luscious vitality, perky wit and earthy style.

Carrie Lee Patterson as Amalia is the perfect comic ingenue--innocent, idiosyncratic and feisty.

The men are all likewise especially suited to the show--Scott Shively brings a slippery charm to his cuckolding Kodaly. Joey Wishnia gives a warm portrayal of the flustered mensch, Mr. Maraczek. T. David Rutherford and Troy Willis make a little comic magic as a cowardly clerk and an ambitious delivery boy. And Roy Reents makes a believably real "Dear Friend" and head clerk. It's an unusual romantic lead, because the character is meant to be a humble sort with a great heart. Reents builds into his character a touching modesty along with a penchant for prickly criticism.

The music, by Joe Masteroff, is unhummable--you don't walk out with a song in your heart. But these songs have their own charm, making a lasting impression because they're so clever and well-integrated, and the lyrics are marvelous fun.

Light as it is, She Loves Me is actually less frothy than most romantic musical comedies. Maybe it's the Eastern European names, the striking set or the 1930s time frame, or maybe it's just the high quality of the performances, but the show has staying power. And the Christmas setting makes it a decidedly desirable alternative to A Christmas Carol.

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