The holiday season offering from Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Productions first inspired the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner,” starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, then a 1949 musical version, “In the Good Old Summertime,” with Judy Garland. It was also the inspiration for the 1998 Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail.”
On stage, the story was adapted as the 1963 musical “She Loves Me,” which had a Broadway revival in 2016.
Bag & Baggage’s version, which opened Nov. 25 and continues through Dec. 23, is a romantic comedy with dark undertones of the 1930s, when it was conceived by a Hungarian-Jewish playwright, Miklos Laszlo. Laszlo was born in 1903 as Nicholaus Leitner, but his family took more Hungarian-sounding names in an age of growing anti-Semitism. Sensing danger on the horizon, Laszlo emigrated to America in 1938, a year after his play opened in Budapest.
In “Parfumerie,” bickering cosmetics store clerks Amalia Balash (played by Arianne Jacques) and George Horvath (played by Joey Copsey) have spent two years working together, unaware that throughout most of that time, they’ve been falling in love as anonymous pen pals.
Jacques and Copsey’s fast-talking, light-ribbing Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn chemistry and mannerisms are fun to watch unfold onstage against the backdrop of Christmas time in pre-World War II Europe.
Strengths: While this is on nearly all counts a holiday love story, dark clouds linger on the edges. They’re in the sounds of air raid sirens, in the constant patrols of a police officer and in a brief scene with a hidden menorah — all touches that Bag & Baggage added. In 1937, all Laszlo was able to get away with was a line in which an officer notes that the perfume shop’s Christmas tree is fake — but it could’ve fooled him. Audiences in Laszlo’s time would have gotten the reference.
In this version, the Nazis are literally at the doorstep, and co-directors Scott Palmer and Cassie Greer don’t let you forget it.
Weaknesses: Our pen pal lovers aren’t the only storyline here. Store owner Miklos Hammerschmidt (played by David Heath) is on the verge of a breakdown. Clerks Ilona Ritter (played by Stephanie Leppert) and Steven Kadar (Andrew Beck) have their own affairs brewing. There are few times where the pacing of explaining all these relationships slows things down, but it’s a forgivable flaw.
Significant performance: There are plenty, but let’s single out Eric St. Cyr as the dimwitted but well-meaning bicycle delivery boy Arpad, who admits, “Sometimes my thinking isn’t entirely thought out.” He’s a welcome comic relief in some of the show’s tenser moments. It’s also a delight to watch senior clerk Mr. Sipos, played by Patrick Spike, who carries some of the best one-liners while still being a character of depth.
Line of the night: “He seems twice the man he used to be.” – Amalia Balash as she begins to suspect George Horvath may be the unnamed owner of postal box 520.
Takeaway: “Parfumerie” is a great gateway holiday play that acknowledges some of the anxieties of the political season while offering plenty of laughter and romance. Nazis on the periphery? Still alarmingly relevant today. The theatrical stage is where we can explore the anxieties of our time and reflect on moments in our past when fear and paranoia brought out the worst in people.
If Vice President-elect Mike Pence is in town, he’d do well to get tickets.
Where: The Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., Hillsboro
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 23
Tickets: $22-$32 (pay what you will Dec. 1), bagnbaggage.org or 503-345-9590