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Broadway Reviews

Amélie, A New Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 3, 2017

Amélie, A New Musical Book by Craig Lucas. Music by Daniel Messé. Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé. Based on the motion picture by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Musical staging and choreography by Sam Pinkleton. Music Director Kimberly Grigsby. Scenic and costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Jane Cox & Mark Barton. Sound design by Kai Harada. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Puppet design by Amanda Villalobos. Hair/wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Creative Consultant Tony Taccone. Vocal arrangements by Kimberly Grigsby & Daniel Messé. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Cast: Starring Phillipa Soo, Adam Chanler-Berat, with Emily Afton, David Andino, Audrey Bennett, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, Alison Cimmet, Savvy Crawford, Trey Ellett, Manoel Felciano, Harriet D. Foy, Alyse Alan Louis, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Destinee Rea, Jacob Keith Watson, Paul Whitty, and Tony Sheldon.
Theatre: Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Phillipa Soo
Photo by Joan Marcus

Charm used to be the glue that held musicals together, but today it's largely unappreciated, if not outright scorned, as antithetical to big products and big budgets that can't (or shouldn't) coast on gentle star power alone. But Phillipa Soo is loaded with charm and knows how to use it to make the new musical Amélie, which just opened at the Walter Kerr, something more than it could ever be on its own. If her superb work doesn't prove beyond any doubt that individuality is the true fuel of the musical actor's art, it's difficult to see how anything could.

Soo, who is best known for originating Eliza in Hamilton but also created the female lead in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, is all about capturing contradictions in midair like a firefly. She's edgily innocent one moment, capriciously calculating the next, and later still a worldly dreamer whose feet are forever on the ground while her head floats in the clouds. The women she plays defy easy explanation, but are never less than correct, recognizable, and most of all likable. Add in the elegant, exotic air she projects and a singing voice that's at once earthy and ethereal, and Soo seems to contain every emotion of every kind of woman who's ever lived everywhere at every time.

She is, in short, ideal for embodying the title character in this stage adaptation of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant's 2001 film, which expertly crafted the whimsical realism of a woman who finds herself in the everyday magic of the objects and people she encounters. (Audrey Tautou played her memorably on screen.) Finding the heartbreak in the death of Amélie's idol, Princess Diana; the playfulness that leads her to play matchmaker for her friends and family with various people, hopes, and dreams; and the charged expectation inherent in the "love at first sight" relationship she kindles with the mysterious man she meets in the train station—Soo excels at unlocking all of this humanity and more.

But Soo's shimmering central presence only amplifies the troubles around her. Bookwriter Craig Lucas, composer-lyricist Daniel Messé, lyricist Nathan Tysen, and director Pam MacKinnon may have been ultra faithful as far as the letter in escorting this quirky movie to the stage, but the underlying spirit is nowhere to be found. It's not through want of trying, as they launch no shortage of vivid ideas at you across the intermissionless 100-minute running time. But when singing and dancing are the lifeblood of the language, the wonderment of ordinary miracles, as magnified in the eye and heart, diminishes greatly and becomes less, rather than more, real.

Phillipa Soo with Adam Chanler-Berat
Photo by Joan Marcus

Take the anecdote at the beginning of the show, where a housebound young Amélie (played, winningly, by Savvy Crawford) must part with her precious goldfish. What on film was a minor tweaking of fin and fact, with just an embellishment of anthropomorphism, is rendered here with violently broad strokes, and a sprawling orange headdress that's more the stuff of nightmares than fancy. (David Zinn designed both the usually delightful costumes and the cramped, off-kilter picture-postcard set.) Or that Amélie's budding longings are represented by a stage full of briefcases opened to reveal giant, glittery pop-out hearts, a move that's jolting in its distracting obviousness.

Then there's the scene in which the adult Amélie constructs a sublime chase through the streets of Montmartre for Nino, the photograph-collecting man she bumps into in the subway and falls instantly and secretly (most of all to her) in love with. What in the movie was a quietly epic parade through luscious sights with blue-chalk arrows serving as the only guides, in the musical becomes a swirling, confusing collection of spinning signs and vague suggestion suffocating Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat) that obscures the point of the exercise. (This is often a problem with faithful-to-a-fault adaptations; someone able to truly transform the material, à la Bob Fosse morphing Nights of Cabiria into Sweet Charity, would probably do something much different, and would unquestionably do something more theatrical.)

These are but a few examples of many where the translation falls flat. Other times, the writers get closer to devising their own original language, as with the structure of the elaborate five-song montage that opens the show and chronicles Amélie's bumpy road to adulthood. And, to be fair, MacKinnon, who is directing her first Broadway musical, otherwise demonstrates an exemplary sense of fluidity and pacing that keeps the evening moving at a breakneck, but not breath-stealing, speed. (She's aided by choreographer Sam Pinkleton, whose dances blend in beautifully without drawing attention to themselves.)

Phillipa Soo with the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

What's lost is the tapestry of the universe in which it all unfolds, in which the personalities who surround Amélie are as distinct as she is. Her coworkers and customers at the restaurant where she's a waitress have been shunted so far into the background that they no longer have clear connections to the central story. Her relationship with a sharp-tongued painter (Tony Sheldon) is downplayed and defused. And the most vivid, where she pranks an abusive grocer to bring him into line, has been cut entirely, likely to make Amélie appear unwaveringly kind instead of shaded. Without these portraits, we don't truly understand the task she's undertaking to revolutionize them, and her romance with Nino, on which much of the second half depends, is not well earned.

Some assistance comes by way of Messé's music and its Bruce Coughlin orchestrations; together, they summon a light, bouncy, Gallic feel that properly (if somewhat generically) sets the mood and locale. (The musical director is Kimberly Grigsby, who collaborated with Messé on the fine vocal arrangements.) The book and the lyrics, though, struggle to match either the tunes' simple poetry or the film's Technicolor fantasy overtones; most of the time, they're lodged somewhere uncomfortably in the middle, as in this lyric from "Times Are Hard For Dreamers" (the title is borrowed from the movie's key theme): "They say times are hard for dreamers / And who knows maybe they are / People seem stuck or lost at sea / And I might be a dreamer / But it's gotten me this far / And that is far enough for me." Earthbound performances by the rest of the cast, Chanler-Berat occasionally excluded for his fascinating and amiable but rather impenetrable wide-eyed-hipster Nino, further signal a clash of styles with no concrete victor.

Except Soo, that is. She's genuine and right through and through as this unusually usual woman, and effortless at making the nonsensical as sensible as can be. While she's doing it, you don't question her—you can't—but she also doesn't let you in on all of her secrets. Even until the final curtain, you can tell that she's keeping something in reserve: a bit of knowledge, experience, or charisma that she'll pull out if and when she needs it to regain command of your attention. And when she does, you'll give it willingly—that's just how charm is. Soo and Amélie know that instinctively, even if the rest of those involved with this Amélie are still trying to figure it out.