One of the really good things about this musical is the fact that it stays so true to the Lubitsch style. The Shop Around the Corner is notable for the way that it lurches into bitterness and tragedy before finally resolving on a happy ending – the key this time being the poison pen letters we do not yet know about that Ladislav sends to Mr Maraczek that inexplicably darken the atmosphere. The fact that we do not know about these letters only heightens the fact that the audience is in the privileged position of knowing who the anonymous correspondents are in the main stream of letters that fuel the plot – it is a play about the power of letters to express and influence moods and emotions and how important it is to know exactly who is writing before you can really assess what is happening. People can abuse power behind a cloak of anonymity.
For a Broadway show of its era, the emotional gamut is wide and yet believable. It is deft, literate and witty. The main characters all come across as interesting people: we care about everyone apart maybe from Kodaly the serial womaniser. We watch their lives unfold. As Georg, Joe McFadden brings a lot of the raw, naïve enthusiasm meshed with brooding intelligence of James Stewart. Dianne Pilkington has something of the emotional intensity and throbbing voice of Judy Garland, who played this role in The Good Old Summertime, the musical remake of the Lubitsch film. Jack Chissick as Mr Maraczek has the florid face of someone living on the verge of apoplexy. Not many musicals have a suicide attempt that is so real, not played for comic effect in any way.
The score is full of witty numbers that advance the plot seamlessly. “Sounds while selling” is a classic example of something that montage can achieve in film but which is so hard in a play – condensing the whole atmosphere of a shop, the customers, the merchandise, the different personalities of the sales-staff. “Days Gone By”, perhaps the stand-out number, is poignant, rueful, nostalgic, triumphant. “A Trip to the Library” is hilarious. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick filled the score with interesting songs, even if most of them only exist within the confines of the show.
The production design was wonderful – really conveying the style of art nouveau Budapest. But it is the shifts of mood – that blend of irony, tragedy, comedy, melodrama, love, despair, elation, sleaze – that make this such a fine show. It remains true to Lubitsch and yet, thanks to the music, finds a style of its own, something sassier but still graceful and lyrical.