'Amelie, a New Musical': Theater Review

Amelie Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Joan Marcus
Charming and sweet, but not saccharine.

The 2001 Oscar-nominated movie finds new life as a musical starring 'Hamilton' breakout Phillipa Soo, stopping in Los Angeles on its way to Broadway next spring.

Earning five Oscar nominations in 2001, Amelie charmed international audiences with its playful tone and quirky narrative about a Parisian do-gooder (Audrey Tautou, in a career-making role) too inhibited to find love. To composer Daniel Messe, the French film seemed like an obvious candidate for a musical adaptation. So when producer Aaron Harnick asked him to choose a title for his next project, he responded with just one word, "Amelie." After trying out to encouraging reviews at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year, Amelie, a New Musical has undergone an overhaul before arriving at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles en route to Broadway in the spring. The result is a lovingly crafted confection, impressive in its execution and endearing in its simplicity.

Taking over from Samantha Barks (Les Miserables), who played the title role in the Berkeley Rep production, Phillipa Soo leads the cast in her first role since her Tony-nominated breakout performance as Eliza in Hamilton. A rising star since she graduated Juilliard in 2012 and jumped two months later into the original production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Soo returns in Amelie to a role she played in the project's early workshops. Carrying a show on her shoulders for the first time, she delivers with a requisite charm that is sweet but never saccharine.  

Portrayed in the opening scenes by an effervescent Savvy Crawford, young Amelie is taught Zeno’s paradox by her homeschooling mother (Alison Cimmet). For those not up on their Greek philosophical problems, it’s a theory that says no matter how often one halves his or her distance from an object, they will still be only halfway there — a thematic statement that deftly illustrates Amelie's intimacy issues.

In Soo’s early solo, "Times Are Hard for Dreamers," Messe and co-lyricist Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting) provide clever expositional lyrics like, "I might be a dreamer, but it's gotten me this far. And that's far enough for me," to establish Amelie as a loner. An inciting incident comes in the form of a tin box full of childhood mementos she finds hidden under the floorboards, which she decides to reunite with its owner. Subsequent favors continue to draw her out of her confines and into the world of others.

Among those others is Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat, Peter and the Starcatcher), a misfit like Amelie, who scrounges around photo booths for discarded images of strangers, which he keeps in a scrapbook. When the book accidentally falls into Amelie's hands, her drive to reunite it with its owner leads to romance.

The song in which she arranges to meet Nino, "Blue Arrow Suite," pulls together the strong ensemble cast, including Harriett D. Foy, Alyse Alan Louis, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Randy Blair and Paul Whitty, in a flurry of cues that seems to drive the couple together even as they remain apart. Credit director Pam MacKinnon, a Tony winner for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, who juggles multiple moving parts, for making it all look easy and breezy, with help from the book by Craig Lucas (An American in Paris).

While Amelie remains the dominant character, as in the movie, Nino earns his turn in the spotlight with "Thin Air," sung while searching the city for her. And when finally united, the couple makes nice work of "Stay," the climactic moment where the only thing separating them is the door that Amelie must will herself to open.

While the movie was grounded in stylized cinematic storytelling, MacKinnon and Tony-winning scenic and costumer designer David Zinn (The Humans) take the opposite direction, paring things down to cockeyed frames suggesting Amelie's offbeat personality, and armoires from which she must metaphorically emerge. A flat serves as the café where Amelie works, but Zinn is just as likely to suggest sets using only windows and doors.

There are no Parisian landmarks in the background, nor accordions in the music by Messe of the Brooklyn band Hem. In fact, the only things French about Amelie are the names and places. It may sound like sacrilege when you consider the distinctly French flavor of the Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie, but this adaptation only emphasizes how universal is the need to touch, and be touched by others.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Emily Afton, David Andino, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, Adam Chanler-Berat, Alison Cimmet, Savvy Crawford, Manoel Felciano, Harriett D. Foy, Alyse Alan Louis, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Lily Sanfelippo, Tony Sheldon, Phillipa Soo, Jacob Keith Watson, Paul Whitty
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Music: Daniel Messe
Lyrics: Nathan Tysen, Daniel Messe
Book: Craig Lucas, based on the screenplay by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Set & costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Jane Cox, Mark Barton
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Musical director: Kimberly Grigsby
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Harbor Entertainment, Triptyk Studios, Spencer Ross, Simone Genatt Haft, Marc Routh