For Norm Sham and Debbie Pappas, two of the most recognizable faces in Buffalo’s theater scene, the line between life and work isn’t always clear-cut.
And never has that distinction seemed blurrier than in the Kavinoky Theatre’s production of “She Loves Me,” a romantic comedy opening Friday in which the Shams star opposite one another as co-workers who fall in love. Which is exactly what they are.
Kavinoky Theatre Managing Director Joseph Demerly, who has known the married couple for 20 years, has long been eyeing this show as a vehicle for them, he said. Like many in Buffalo’s theater community, he watched admiringly as Sham and Pappas first fell in love during a 2004 production of “The Spitfire Grill” at MusicalFare, had their ups and downs, and finally married in August 2013.
Norm’s proposal to Debbie, during a rehearsal for the Kavinoky’s season-opening production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in September 2012, was caught on video and caused plenty of buzz throughout the theater community.
“It’s the first time I’ve been cast as the romantic lead after 32 years of doing theater. And who would have thought? I thought my time was kind of done for that,” Pappas said in a recent interview at the theater. “And then I get to do it with my husband. That’s so special.”
For Demerly, the production thrives on its stars’ real-life relationship. In the show, the couple falls in love anonymously by exchanging letters about their shared love for art and culture, only to realize toward the end of the narrative that they already know each other and work together in real life. The fact that they can’t stand one another as co-workers – or think they can’t – provides much of the story’s dramatic thrust.
“I think that if it was still Norm Sham and still Debbie Pappas but they didn’t have this romance, it would be a different show,” Demerly said. “The last moment of the show, they realize that they’re pen pals for each other and they embrace and they kiss. It’s so real, it can’t be faked. I think even the best actors wouldn’t be able to have that spark at that moment because they happen to be married and in love and good friends.”
Demerly said he’s taken some flak from the theater community for casting the roles with actors older than the parts call for, but stands by the choice as an ideal fit for both of them.
“It took me quite some time to convince them that they weren’t too old to do this and ... the casting choices I’ve made do skew older than traditional,” Demerly said. “I think our audience won’t know the difference. If they’re huge fans of the show I think that this casting will resonate greater with them because they’re not looking at two 21-year-olds finding love, not that we don’t care about that, but their relationship is much more mature.”
For Pappas, there are plenty of moments during the show that echo her personal life with Sham.
But her favorite, she said, wasn’t the big kiss at the end or any of the other intense scenes of love or longing. It’s just a simple line, delivered in the middle of a big number featuring the entire cast toward the end of the show.
“It’s when we’re back at work and we both kind of just like each other. It’s when he’s asking me to go for coffee and I say, ‘I’d like that,’ ” she said. “That’s actually my favorite moment of connecting with him because we work together, and I like him. He’s just asking me if I’m doing something after work. And no, I’ve got nothing planned.”
What: “She Loves Me”
Where: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
When: Through May 24
Info: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com