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The scenario is so simple.

Two clerks in a Budapest perfume shop quarrel all day, then go to their respective apartments to correspond with their secret pen pals. Needless to say, their clandestine paramours turn out to be . . . each other.

This is the central theme in "She Loves Me," the Bock-Harnick musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1963 to good reviews and favorable audience reaction but didn't run long enough to recoup the original investment. A 1993 revival was much more successful, and a cult has sprung up around "She Loves Me." Many people consider it a badge of honor to have seen the original 1963 production.

Even after listening to the attractive music on the 1993 recording, however, this phenomenon is still hard to understand. How could so simple a plot be expanded to an evening's entertainment?

But in light of the excellent production that Jay Lesenger has mounted to close the Chautauqua Opera's 1998 season, it's all clear to me now. Bock and Harnick have embroidered the relationship between the principals, Amalia and Georg, with subplots involving other clerks.

Ilona is desperate for a man. Kodaly is devious, playing up to Ilona while secretly carrying on an affair with the wife of the shop owner Maraczek. The delivery boy Arpad lusts to be promoted to clerk status, and Sipos is the honest broker or straight man among the clerks, well intentioned but often ineffectual.

There is a wonderful cafe scene with a schmaltzy gypsy violinist and two outrageously balletic waiters, unwittingly set against the pathos of a lonely Amalia, who has apparently been stood up.

All this lends body to the drama, while wonderful musical touches enhance the lyrical line and unify the story through such devices as a repeated choral recitative by which customers in Maraczek's shop are thanked upon departure.

The overarching plot and the many sub-plots are fleshed out so naturally that the running time of just under three hours flies by unnoticed.

As for the performance itself, the casting of Kate Egan as Amalia and George Dvorsky as Georg is a masterstroke. Their voices are ideally matched, with clean, thin leading edges, excellent enunciation, warmth of sonority and fine tonal support. Moreover, their acting is very natural and extremely expressive of the conflicting emotions attached to their relationship.

Marshall Borden has the look of dignity, the fine acting and the nice warm baritone to put across the largely sympathetic role of shop owner Maraczek. With her zaftig frame, robust voice and ability to act a convincing vamp, Carolann Page makes an excellent Ilona, while Dean Anthony's Kodaly is oily enough to seem credible as a two-timer of women and a petty thief in the shop. James Lawson and James Burritt are also excellent as Sipos and Arpad.

Lesenger's direction is not intrusive, but gives the a feeling that everyone, from the principals down to the chorus, is doing the right thing at the right time.

She Loves Me

Musical comedy with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock.

Directed by Jay Lesenger, conducted by Jack Everly, featuring Kate Egan and George Dvorsky.

Friday evenin in Norton Hall, Chautauqua Institution. Performance repeated at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

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