By Nancy Salz/April 2017
How many successful musicals can you name that are built around a character’s inner fantasy world – where a vivid imagination has been brought to life in scenery and costumes, song, dance and dialogue all to magical effect? Only Man of La Mancha comes to mind.
Amélie, a new Broadway musical based on the 2001 French movie and first mounted at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is in the same inner-fantasy genre. But (with one important exception) it’s far from being in the same league.
While we, the audience, are waiting for Amélie to begin, we see a blue and white damask front curtain suddenly come to life. Animated butterflies, birds and rabbits dart hither and yon. This bit of fancy is quite charming. And then we meet Amélie as a child (Savvy Crawford). She lives in a dismal world. Her parents are literally hands off. They show her no affection. They home-school her so that when she grows up she has no friends, knows nothing of other people or of love. At a young age she has already retreated into her own fantasy world.
Eventually Amélie moves to Paris, lives in a small apartment and works at a café with a group of oddball people. One day she finds a hidden box in her apartment and gets such joy from returning it to its owner that she decides to pattern her life on Princess Di’s and devote herself to doing good deeds. This involves finding café colleagues their soul mates and returning a book of photos to its owner. The owner, it turns out, is a handsome young man. You can guess the rest.
Paris, as seen through Amélie’s eyes, has a bridge, stars, a rising moon, windows and doors all over the place. It has a gnome who lives atop a mushroom, looking like a Travelocity product placement. Designed by David Zinn (who also did the costumes), the set is sadly jumbled and distracting.
Amélie also has too many not-very-tuneful songs (Daniel Messé) and lyrics (Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé) that are often expository and, frankly, boring or silly. These opening lyrics will give you an idea …
The moment a blue fly takes flight, it passes a fruit stand and lands on a fig, as the new owner’s taking a bite
The one memorable and wonderful exception to this otherwise frivolous musical is Tony nominee Phillipa Soo. When she is on the stage, the entire theatre lights up. Soo, who played the wise, deep, emotional Eliza Schuyler Hamilton in Hamilton, can twist the Amélie audience around her finger with just a playful smile. Dressed in a multi-patterned red dress and black boots, she pushes her boots up and down the Paris bridge and makes you believe in her character and the story. If only she were on the stage all the time.
The other actors, including the leading man, Adam Chanler-Berat, all carry the weight of their characters. They are talented – but replaceable. Soo is not. Thanks to her many screaming fans, she may keep this show afloat longer than it deserves.
In the breadth and depth of her talent, in her total, compelling charm, Phillipa Soo is another Audra MacDonald. I loved her, but I couldn’t buy into Amélie. Even with a discounted ticket I didn’t get my money’s worth.
Book by Craig Lucas; Music by Daniel Messé; Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé; Directed by Pam Mackinnon; Musical Staging and Choreography by Sam Pinkleton; Musical Direction by Kimbery Grigsby; Scenic and Costume Design by David Zinn; Lighting Design by Jane Cox and Mark Barton; Sound Design by Kai Harada; Production Design by Peter Nigrini.
Starring: Phillipa Soo and Adam Chanler-Berat with an additional cast of sixteen.