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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Northern Kentucky University
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule

Also see Rick's reviews of Breaking the Code and Stew and Scott's review of Peter Pan

Zachary Farmer and Chloe Esmeier
Photo by Tammy Cassesa
If you're a frequent theatregoer, it may sometimes feel like the same shows are produced over and over again. So, when a recent Broadway musical finally has its local premiere, as is the case with the production of the musical Amélie at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), it's quite refreshing. Though hampered by some sound issues that impact the clarity of storytelling, this mounting of a quite unique musical offers a lot for audiences, including first-rate performances.

Amélie is based on the 2001 film of the same name. The musical primarily takes place in the 1970s and 1990s. We meet a young French girl who is raised by overprotective and cold parents. Some years after her mother's unexpected death, young adult Amélie finds herself working at a quaint café and still trying to find her purpose. Inspired by a series of events following the death of Princess Diana, she is determined to be an anonymous do-gooder, not knowing that one of her deeds might finally lead her to personal connection and love. The show was a fast flop on Broadway in 2017, but found a level of success in a reworked version in the United Kingdom in 2021.

The musical has a book by Craig Lucas. The story is a very quirky and charming one, and the storytelling is likewise quirky in tone and presentation, in line with that of the film. The tale is a fast-paced one, and narration is used to introduce characters. Some major plot points are presented with only a few lines of dialogue or lyrics. The book's emphasis on the importance of connection and relationships is universal, but the material and style are so unique that it's challenging to keep up with what is happening at times. The setting, themes, and style are similar to that of another French "A" musical–Amour.

The score has music by Daniel Messé and lyrics by both Mess and Nathan Tysen. The music is often driving and melodically soaring, but with quaint orchestrations. The lyrics contain wit and insight, and their fair share of poetic flair. The score is reminiscent of several other Broadway scores, including If/Then. Song highlights include "When the Booth Goes Bright", "Times Are Hard for Dreamers", "Tour de France" (which has a melody similar to "Finishing the Hat" from Stephen Sondheim's score for Sunday in the Park with George), and the hauntingly beautiful duet "Stay."

NKU's production is being presented at The Carnegie in Covington, Kentucky, rather than on campus, and they are offering the reworked U.K. version. Director Jamey Strawn provides the appropriate tone and pace, and has pulled strong performances from his actors. The staging is fitting given the somewhat cramped quarters of the Carnegie stage, and there is a fun and artistic use of puppetry (with puppets created by Lizzy Duquette). The limited choreography by Mollie Tagher is well-suited to the material. Steve Goers leads a vibrant seven-piece orchestra.

In the title role is Chloe Esmeier, who is endearing and aptly eccentric, and shows off a lovely singing voice throughout. As Nino, the potential love interest for Amélie, Zachary Farmer displays likewise soaring vocals, and is an engaging foil. The remaining members of the twelve-person cast are versatile, skillfully portraying multiple characters, and they sound especially exemplary on the choral portions of the score.

The two-tiered unit set by Sam Reno features a movable center section and several smaller pieces, with details recalling the decades of the setting. The costumes by Cat Schmeal-Swope are appropriate and varied, and Jo Sanburg's lighting includes pleasing effects such as showing the movement of the subway.

The production does have one significant weakness, which has multiple causes. It is often difficult to hear and understand what is being said or sung. The words come by at very fast pace, and much of the storytelling is based on what is said, not seen. At the performance attended, there were issues with turning on microphones in a timely fashion and in the overall balance of the performers to orchestra. Additionally, the decision to have the performers use French accents makes it challenging for the audience to understand the lines or lyrics. At intermission, several audience members were overheard discussing their inability to follow the story. Some of these problems could be fixed, but theatregoers might also want to either listen to a cast recording or watch the movie first in order to fully enjoy the piece.

Amélie is an ambitious, charming, and peculiar musical. Its unusual story and style might not be for everyone, but it's a rarely stage piece, and NKU's production features a strong cast and creative team. Hopefully, issues with clearly conveying the story due to sound problems will be resolved for remaining performances.

Amélie runs through March 23, 2024, The Carnegie Theatre, 1028 Scott St, Covington KY. For tickets and information, please call 859-572-5464 or visit