- OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
It is always a treat when those of us in Los Angeles get a sneak peek of a Broadway-bound new musical, and Amelie is no exception. Now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through January 15th before opening on Broadway in March, it is difficult to not be enchanted by this charming show, based on the 2001 film of the same name.
Amelie tells the story of a young French girl raised by cold, distant, eccentric parents who grows up to become a quirky yet endearing waitress with a love for improving the lives of those around her. The only happiness that seems to elude her is, in fact, her own. In 1997, a chain of events triggered by Amelie’s shock over the news of Princess Diana’s death leads her to discover a box hidden away in the floorboards of her apartment that belonged to a previous tenant. When she successfully returns the box to its owner, who is moved to positively change his life as a result, it sets in motion a series of events that ultimately leads her into a playful, romantic dance with an equally quirky love interest, Nino, whose hobby is collecting discarded photos from photo booths.
Much like the film, the stage production of Amelie is a feast for the senses, with a bold, whimsical color scheme, innovative sets (by David Zinn), and a fantastical feel. If you liked the television show Pushing Daisies, you will adore this musical. Amelie’s vivid imagination is portrayed in creative ways, with both her childhood goldfish and family garden gnome literally coming to life onstage. The music (score by Daniel Messe of the band Hem, lyrics by Messe and Nathan Tysen) is pleasant and airy, played by an orchestra comprised almost entirely of strings. The songs, while enjoyable, are ultimately unmemorable, but that’s not to say this would have fared better as a straight play—the spirit of the story absolutely lends itself to the musical treatment, and the songs fold right in almost seamlessly, which is wonderful in that it’s natural, but less wonderful in that they rarely stand out.
Directed by Pam MacKinnon, the production is perfectly cast, particularly in terms of its two leads. In the title role, Phillipa Soo proves her impressive versatility as an actress, as Amelie could hardly be more different from Eliza in Hamilton, where she was equally fantastic. Her Amelie is much more shy and socially awkward than Audrey Tatou’s interpretation in the film, who came across as more quirky yet confident. Broadway favorite Adam Chanler-Berat seems like he was born to play the role of Nino, and his big song in the latter half of the hour and forty minute, no-intermission musical was probably the most memorable. Also notable is Savvy Crawford as young Amelie, who is given quite a bit of heavy-lifting in what is sure to be a breakthrough performance.
The musical has been in development for a while, and first debuted at Berkeley Rep last year with a different actress, Samantha Barks, in the lead role. While it is ultimately very pleasing, there are some structural elements that could still be ironed out. The film features a narrator, which is replaced here by the chorus of ensemble members, but this narrative structure is used somewhat inconsistently, disappearing completely for what felt like long stretches of time. Similarly, the use of young Amelie later in the show as a shadow of her older self, while never disappointing, also felt haphazard. There were certainly some very intentional cuts made from the film, most notably the mean-spirited subplot involving Amelie essentially gaslighting Colignon, a rather cruel grocer. This type of decisiveness is what is needed in finalizing the storytelling techniques and structure. There were also a couple musical numbers that could easily be cut, and a song by Amelie’s three female co-workers, whom I’d wanted to hear from earlier, comes oddly late, interrupting the momentum the love story has achieved at that point.
Minor issues aside, this musical seems well on its way to success. Amelie, despite her many idiosyncrasies, is a very relatable character—I certainly recognized elements of myself in her, and I am sure many others will as well. Her big heart and deep-rooted self doubt are constantly at odds, and it is a treat to root for her during her journey. It is hard to imagine not being charmed by the atmosphere the show creates, which will leave you smiling long after leaving the theater.
Amelie runs at the Ahmanson through January 15th. Tickets range from $25-$125 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. To get tickets for the Broadway run, which begins March 9th at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, visit http://ameliebroadway.com/. Photos: Joan Marcus