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The Shop Around the Corner

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Until recently, I’d never visited The Shop Around the Corner — which is weird, since it sits at the intersection of two of your old-timey opiner’s favourite avenues of entertainment: Christmas stories and Jimmy Stewart movies. 

The original 1940 film’s been on my cultural to-do list for ages now — I’ve even had a copy of the movie on my DVR for about a year — but somehow or other I’d just never gotten around to it. Then ACT produced a stage version of the show this fall, which posed an intriguing dilemma: watch the movie and then see the play, or vice versa? 

Play before film, I decided, wanting to see the stage show with fresh eyes devoid of preconceptions or comparisons. So I attended the play after work on a Friday night, and watched the movie later that weekend. Both versions were quite enjoyable, in sometimes surprisingly different ways. 

ACT’s play, the Jimmy Stewart film and various other versions such as 1998’s You’ve Got Mail are all adapted from 1930s play Parfumerie, a reworking of Hungarian play Illatszertar by Miklos Laszlo (a.k.a. Nikolaus Laszlo). Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson and director Ernst Lubitsch concocted the first film version of Laszlo’s story in 1940 with The Shop Around the Corner

Bringing things full circle, Mariève MacGregor recently converted the 40s flick back into a play by transcribing and adapting Raphaelson’s script for the stage, directing and choreographing ACT’s ensuing production as well. The result is one of the most self-assured, playfully inventive, impressively versatile shows in recent PEI community theatre. 

Set in 1936 Budapest, the play revolves around the shop Matuschek and Company, where capable, confident Alfred Kralik (Adam Gauthier) is senior salesman. The store’s paternally officious, oft-awkward owner Hugo Matuschek (Gordon Cobb) also employs sales clerks Pirovitch (Richard Haines), Flora (Marti Hopson) and Vadas (Mike Mallaley) plus errand boy Pepi Katona (Jim McClean), so Mr. Matuschek feels his little shop is overstaffed – but winsome go-getter Klara Novak (Teresa Wright) somehow talks herself into a sales job regardless. 

A testy rivalry develops between Kralik and Klara, complicated by an unwitting prior connection: they have been exchanging anonymous romantic letters for some time, each of them unaware that his or her dreamy pen pal is also that annoying jerk from work. Cue shenanigans. 

The Laszlo/Raphaelson story is a charming romantic comedy that doubles as a touching holiday tale with much of the action happening near Christmas, complete with the seasonal sideshow of a repentant Mr. Matuschek playing a store brand Scrooge of sorts after a crisis spurs him to new levels of generosity and sensitivity — a bit derivative, but heartwarming all the same. 

Cobb’s posturing early Matuschek seldom fully pops, but he’s quirkily affecting and genuine in much of the character’s later post-reformation scenes. McClean suffers from rushed delivery and fuzzy articulation in spots, but captures Pepi’s amiably lean-and-hungry hustle nicely. Mallaley’s a bit cartoonish as oily flatterer Vadas, but it’s a cartoonish character and the audience seems to love to hate him. He’s effective, as are Hopson’s Flora and literally too many other fine supporting players to mention in this space. 

Best of the batch are a glumly pathetic yet adroitly comedic Haines as wearily resigned wage slave Pirovitch and the Gauthier/Wright duo as the show’s thoroughly appealing, entertaining romantic leads, all of whom compare very favourably with their cinematic counterparts. Jimmy Stewart is the better Kralik by a nose, perhaps at least partially due to the broader palette of nuance film affords, but Gauthier gives the late icon a run for his money. 

Despite the Stewart edge, MacGregor’s play actually surpasses the film overall. However strong the movie’s story and cast might be, Lubitsch’s workmanlike direction is eclipsed by the colour, energy and imagination of MacGregor’s staging, including a fun period soundtrack full of early 20th Century pop music by the likes of Benny Goodman, the Memphis Five and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and multiple dance numbers built around same. 

Those dance numbers are the play’s secret weapon, enjoyable as spectacle — ACT’s company executes them with winningly lively flair — but also as multi-purpose devices building atmosphere, covering scene changes, moving along the plot and even advancing character development, such as an early number that captures the dynamics of the shop in general and the Kralik-Klara relationship in particular with no dialogue required. Pretty fancy footwork.

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