Amélie – A New Musical continues at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Whimsy is an elusive quality to capture in the Broadway vernacular of today, with its abundance of ear-blasting power ballads, ironic gags and strenuous jaw-dropping dancing. Amélie, a New Musical is an adaptation of the 2001 French film Amélie, which served up buckets full of whimsy against the background of a rosy-hued Paris.
The musical works hard to find a middle ground, giving the film’s multitude of soft-hearted fans what they might be expecting and the hard-edged Broadway ticket buyers their money’s worth in noise and energy.
The result is an enterprise that is never cloying but never totally engaging. It certainly has its entertaining, even inspired moments, and you can admire the dedication and proficiency of the 13-person cast.
It’s headed by Phillipa Soo, who gained a Tony nomination creating the role of Alexander Hamilton’s wife in Hamilton and earlier gained acclaimed originating the role of Natasha in the first Off-Broadway mounting of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
You’re also aware of the abundant theatrical inventiveness, sometimes overworked, of the creative team. That includes book writer Craig Lucas, composer Daniel Messé, co-lyricists Messé and Nathan Tysen, director Pam MacKinnon and musical stager and choreographer Sam Pinkleton.
At the same time, you may well be wishing for something simpler and less involved with covering as many of the film’s plot points as possible, while still making room for a plentitude of musical numbers.
As you probably know, the heroine of the title is a waitress in a Paris café. After an isolated childhood governed by over-protective parents, she is terminally shy. Inspired concurrently, however, by news of the death of Princess Diana and the discovery of a dust-covered, sequestered box of childhood mementoes in her apartment, she is driven to perform good deeds, starting with her quest to find the owner of the box.
A series of other acts of kindness for colleagues and strangers follow, but always under the compulsive cover of anonymity. When she comes across the man of her dreams, a fellow named Nino who gathers discarded photos scattered about photo booths in the city’s Metro stations and assembles them into an art book, Amélie dreams up complex schemes to meet up with him without revealing her identity. She finally, though, is compelled to break through her shyness to meet love face to face.
Lucas’ scenario takes us from Amélie’s childhood (Savvy Crawford, a junior Soo-look-alike confidently plays the young Amélie) to the blissful blooming of romantic happiness with Nino.
It’s all played out on the smartly designed set of David Zinn, which starts out looking like a gray bunker but transforms – with the help of lighting by Jane Cox and Mark Barton and the projections of Peter Nigrini – to a variety of more inviting Parisian locales. The cast is also kept busy shoving set pieces on and off stage.
At numerous points, the elliptical script seems to call for some familiarity with the movie to fully comprehend what’s going on, as Amélie carries out her various acts of goodness: treating a blind beggar to a whirlwind aural tour of the neighbourhood, or setting up surreptitiously a rendezvous in the café’s toilette for a pair of potential lovers. And the whimsy tends to go overboard when Amélie gives her father’s garden gnome to an airline hostess and we finally see the two – gnome and hostess – in a sexy clinch.
The score carries the burden of moving a lot of the plot forward or explaining motivation without ever being exceptionally melodic or compelling. Soo carries off a lot of it quite well with an underlying intelligence and liquid singing. She’s a stellar presence, but the character’s essential shyness also puts a blanket on magnetism. Furthermore, some of the numbers tend to lose focus when embroidered with busy ensemble choreography that seems more intrusive than anything else.
However, there are some set pieces that really score. One is a takeoff on Elton John, performed with gusto by Randy Blair, celebrating Amélie’s life – ‘Goodbye Amélie’ – at an imagined memorial á la Diana.
Another is the invigorating solo by Nino, played with likeable authority by Adam Chanler-Berat, as he bounds about the stage in a number called ‘Thin Air’, distributing flyers in his attempt to find the mysterious woman who has come into life.
Soo has an intriguing duet with one of her neighbours, an elderly man, sympathetically portrayed by Tony Sheldon, who spends his time painting replicas of Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’. The number is called ‘The Girl With the Glass’, as the two question the thoughts of one of the painting’s characters.
There’s also a lovely duet by Soo and Chanler-Berat, ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’, that closes the show with both poignancy and grace. And indeed, poignancy and grace – as well as a little touch of French jauntiness in its score – are elements that Amélie, a New Musical could use more of, along with its inherited whimsy.
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