Review: Amélie Charms and Little More
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, April 4, 2017
Remember that great episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show when Ed Asner as gruff boss Lou Grant says to Mary, “You know what? You’ve got spunk.” And Mary smiles, thinking he’s complimenting her honesty. And there’s a beat. And Ed says, “I hate spunk!”
The new musical Amélie, directed by Pam MacKinnon and based on the 2001 French film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, has a lot of whimsy. Beat. I hate whimsy.
I’m also not particularly enamored of cute, quirky, oddball, eccentric, or twee. Unfortunately Amélie has all those things, in abundance.
There’s not much to the story. In the case of the show or the movie, it’s more about the sizzle than the steak. It’s the tale of a shy waitress, played by the très française Audrey Tatou in the film and Phillipa Soo in the show, who finds her purpose in secretly helping others, and her equally withdrawn and whimsical love interest, Nino, played by Next to Normal’s Adam Chanler-Berat. What it really is, is the story of two attractive young people with good pipes and social anxiety disorder.
They are surrounded by people living equally odd and whimsical lives: a former trapeze artist, an elderly painter who only re-paints the same Renoir work over and over, a life-sized dancing garden gnome, a sneezing hypochondriac, a cynical plumber, a struggling poet. Elton John even makes an appearance for one number.
The sets and costumes by David Zinn are full of visual cleverness. There are pumping bright red hearts to signal love, a rather large goldfish (played by a human with fish head and flippers), characters that pop in and out of frames and cabinets, and way too many more to count. It’s so much cleverness overload.
The book, by the venerable Craig Lucas, might be part of the problem. The story is both overstuffed and very slight. Tons of tone and very little drive—Amélie does her good deeds, problems are solved, and eventually she finds love. But since everything is charming and, yes, whimsical, I can’t really care much about any of it. No conflict, no fire, no conflict. I’m rooting for her and her potential love, but I don’t really care all that much because everything is just so…sweet. The stakes are barely visible.
The smallness and the charm of the story might have worked wonderfully in a smaller Off-Broadway theater, where the audience has different expectations. But if I’m taking the subway to Times Square and sitting in a grand theater, not to mention paying hefty Broadway prices, I want my stomach to be in a little knot, or my breath to be stolen away—I want to care. I don’t want to sit there and say, that’s cute.
Of course, what a whole lot of people are there for is the cute, not to mention the charms of Eliza Hamilton herself, Phillipa Soo. Her voice is lush, and she gives the recessive title character as much presence as may be possible. She certainly masters that gamine look the Audreys (Tatou and Hepburn) personify. But Daniel Messé (music and lyrics) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics) haven’t given her much to do with that crystalline voice. The songs are nice. But nice, whether the songs or the story, just ain’t enough.
Amélie, A New Musical at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 218 West 48th Street, opened on April 3, 2017 for an open-end run. Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. Book by Craig Lucas; music by Daniel Messé; lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé. Based on the film Amélie. Directed by Pam MacKinnon; musical staging and choreography by Sam Pinkleton; music direction by Kimberly Grigsby; scenic and costume design by David Zinn; co-lighting design by Jane Cox and Mark Barton; sound design by Kai Harada; projection design by Peter Nigrini; puppet design by Amanda Villalobos; hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe; vocal arrangements by Kimberly Grigsby and Daniel Messé; orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin.
Cast: Phillipa Soo, Adam Chanler-Berat, Emily Afton, David Andino, Audrey Bennett, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, Alison Cimmet, Savvy Crawford, Trey Ellett, Manoel Felciano, Harriett D. Foy, Alyse Alan Louis, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Destinee Rea, Jacob Keith Watson, Paul Whitty and Tony Sheldon.
Cover: Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo in ‘Amélie;’ photo: Joan Marcus.