Amélie: What’s She So Afraid Of?
If you ask anyone who saw the French film this musical is based on, a few words come up constantly. ‘Sweet’, ‘pretty’, and ‘adorable ‘ are the main adjectives that get attached to that 2001 film, directed by the always interesting Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Beyond that, everyone’s memory of Amélie (also known as Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain falls into two very distinct categories; the ones who love it and watch it again and again, and those that can’t really tell you anything beyond those three adjectives. I saw the Broadway musical adaptation with someone who adores the film (and the score of the film) wholeheartedly. I am of the later. I remember seeing it but not much else except for its brightly colored palette and appealing leading lady, Audrey Tautou. If you ask me about this musical, with book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messe, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messe, I will probably say the exact same thing, in addition to those three adjectives. I might also say, ‘nice’, which, and I’m quoting a prominent Broadway producer, is “Not a pull quote for a poster”.
It is very beautifully crafted, this quick 100 minute musical. The set is magically off-centered and colorfully joyous, as are the costumes, both designed by David Zinn (Fun Home). It reminds me visually of a cheery and brighter Mathilde. It’s inventive and possesses a child-like whimsy that is very pleasing to the eye. After the first pretty song, “Times Are Hard For Dreamers“, we happily join the young Amélie as she starts out as a curious but neglected child, (a wonderfully spunky, Savvy Crawford), barely touched by her psychologically challenged father, (Manoel Felciano) and distant mother, portrayed with a kooky charm by Alison Cimmet (She Loves Me) who (awkwardly) dies when Amélie is still quite young, killed by a falling suicidal man. She grows into a the young woman, that pops out of her childhood home front door to greet her younger self with suitcase in hand as she leaves her isolating father for Paris. From this very strange but touching beginning, the musical wears a big grin on its cute face, much like the leading lady who graces this story with a wonderfully beautiful performance and an infectious appeal. Phillipa Soo radiates the pretty charming Amélie from the moment she steps on stage, and although I thought she was lovely in Hamilton and the off-broadway production of Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 (click here for the Broadway production review), it is here, in the staging of this odd-ball creation, when I can fully understand her star power. Her gorgeously voiced Amélie is sweet and scared, an innocent product of neurotic parenting and a tragic maternal beginning, but brave enough to throw herself out into a whimsical depiction of contemporary Parisian life.
From the first initial scenes of her upbringing, we completely understand her difficulty with engaging. She was never taught how to love or embrace others, but her fear of the world in general remains a bit hard to grasp. The colorful world of Montmartre where she lives a quiet happy life and works in a pretty cafe, as created here, doesn’t seem to hold much danger to the charming Amélie. She manages to throw herself out there, happily. Her coworkers, Suzanne, the café’s owner and a former circus performer (an underused Harriett D. Foy), Georgette, a nervous hypochondriac waitress (a solid Alyse Alan Louis), and Gina, a sexy fire ball (a strong Maria-Christina Oliveras), all seem lovely and sweet. The two waitresses really remind me of the two co-workers over at Waitress the musical from pop singer, Sara Bareilles. They are similar types and carry complimentary scenarios, although I think the ladies at that pie shop are given some better ingredients to work with than here in this French cafe. These three cafe ladies do get the opportunity to perform one of my favorite songs in Amélie, the oddly titled but fun and engaging, “A Better Haircut”. Some of Amélie‘s regular customers floating around the cafe are Gina’s ex-boyfriend, the obsessive Joseph (a fun Paul Whitty), Hipolito, a desperate poet (a sweet Randy Blair), and Philomene, a sexy air hostess (Cimmet, playing double duty). The bunch of misfits that fill out the eccentric but family-like atmosphere of her work place all have something that sits unfulfilled in their lives. They all are in need of some help, but there is no danger here in this pretty French neighborhood that is stopping them, other than the internal fear. And here is where the problem lies in Amélie.
Where is the drive and the impulse for this story to move forward? Without fear or danger lurking in the shadows of her outside world, her isolation seems a strange blend of psychological with a dash of the whimsical, and the push for resolution too abstract and complicated (at least to this psychotherapist) to easily happen because of a box, a book, and a boy. The absolutely wonderful Tony Sheldon (Priscilla Queen of the Desert), playing the housebound neighbor and painter has reason to be frightened by the world outside his door. Everything outside could break him, literally, and because of his own limitations, we completely understand why he tries valiantly to help Amélie jump out into the emotionally connecting world that awaits her. But what keeps her so afraid? It can’t be that sweet natured oddball that she keeps encountering at the train station. Nino, played with imperfect perfection by Adam Chanler-Berat (Peter and the Starcatcher, Next to Normal) is naturally the young man who will convince her to step out into the sun, although she doesn’t exactly seem in the shadows most of the time. I loved seeing this talented man as the romantic lead in this show; he’s a natural in the part. Their romance is wrapped in magical charm and effervescent quirkiness revolving around, avoidance, a mysterious photo booth, and its many discarded images all compiled in a journal. It’s cute and sweet, but here we go again.
Amélie is definitely those three adjectives, in abundance. It is filled with funny little gems, like Nino’s coworker (Louis again) and Fluffy the goldfish (Whitty), but also some odd and cringe worthy performances, like the Rock Star (Blair) and his horrible ode to Princess Diana and Amélie, and the silly “Three Figs“. It’s a shame, as the talent is all there, each and everyone working and giving us gold. The music, lyrics, and book all could be described by those same three previously mentioned adjectives, generally speaking, but the songs and the storyline are too sweet for their own good, blending together in a nice but slightly dull affair. Director Pam MacKinnon forgot to give us some kick to this tale, relying too heavily on Soo’s fantastic gifts, and the world’s connection to the film, Amélie. The show ends on a high note, with the lovely ode to a fearless future, “Where Do We Go From Here?” but I think I knew the answer to that already. I prefer the naturally sweet Waitress pies over at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre if I need to feed my sweet tooth. It may not be Paris, but at least over there the ride has drive.