Romance and whimsy reign supreme at the Ahmanson Theatre this holiday season as the century’s most popular French movie heroine takes center stage in Amélie, A New Musical, a Southern California Premiere blessed by a tuneful (and virtually nonstop) score, entrancing performances (including a beguiling star turn by Hamilton star Phillipa Soo), and a magical production design unlike anything I’ve seen before. Give Amélie, A New Musical some judicious book tweaking and it could well prove a Broadway winner in 2017.
Amélie Poulain first crossed the Atlantic in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 romcom, un film français that soon became America’s highest-grossing French movie ever.
Audiences were captivated by Audrey Tautou’s star-making performance as a young woman whose traumatic childhood left her seemingly unprepared for the real world, that is until a tragedy of worldwide proportions sent her on a multiple-lives-altering journey.
Heavy subject matter for a romcom you might think, but, critics called Amélie a “feel-good,” “irresistibly endearing,” “delicious pastry of a movie,” adjectives that apply almost equally to stage its stage adaptation.
Like Jeunet’s film, Amélie, A New Musical (one that debuted last year at Berkeley Rep) follows its heroine’s life from homeschooled childhood (with only a goldfish named Fluffy as her all too short-lived friend) to half-orphanhood to an adulthood spent waitressing in a café peopled by folks in need of a helping hand, one Amélie ends up more than willing to lend, though not until the death of an international icon accidentally sets her on this path.
If all this sounds rather complicated, it is, though thanks to screenwriters Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant’s all-seeing narrator, movie audiences knew exactly what was going on.
Such is not always the case in the virtually sung-through Amélie, A New Musical, one whose plot twists are mostly revealed, not by Craig Lucas’s mostly plot-framing book but via lyrics (by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé) that might leave you asking yourself questions like “How did the Poulin family gnome travel the world?” or (in the case of Amélie’s cat-and-mouse games with a young man clearly her soulmate) “Why doesn’t our heroine just open her mouth and say ‘Bonjour’?” (The latter has something to do with a certain “Zeno’s paradox“ paradoxically not mentioned in the movie, and while we’re on the subject, the musical’s Fat Elton John number, showstopper though it may be, seems a superfluous addition as well.) Also, only those who’ve seen the movie will likely pick up on the identity of the mysterious “photo booth ghost“ when it is finally (and blink and you’ll miss it) explained.
Fortunately, for this reviewer at least, these are fixable flaws in a musical that pretty much had me in its spell from its show-opening introduction to the world surrounding Amélie, played as a child by Savvy Crawford and then as an adult by Tony nominee Soo.
Amanda Villalobos’s fanciful puppets figure early on both as Fluffy The Fish and as a suicidal tourist, each of whom teaches Amélie a lesson in loss before her waitressing gig introduces her to Joseph (Paul Whitty), the jealous ex-lover of Gina (Maria-Christina Oliveras), still grieving the death of a cheating spouse, circus performer-turned-café proprietor Suzanne (Harriett D. Foy), hypochondriacal tobacconist Georgette (Alyse Alan Louis), failed writer Hipolito (Randy Blair), and air hostess Philomene (Alison Cimmet), all of whose lives could stand a bit of meddling.
Also figuring in Amélie’s “fabulous destiny” (the movie’s original French title is Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) are fig-loving green grocer Lucien (Heath Calvert), elderly painter-next-door Dufayel (Tony Sheldon), a garden gnome (Daniel Andino), and Bretodeaux (Manoel Felciano), whose box of childhood treasures sets Amélie on her path towards happiness.
Above all there is Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), whose collection of torn-up photo-booth black-and-whites piques more than mere curiosity on Amélie’s part.
Composer Messé’s melodies could not be more melodious, an absolute must in a musical almost entirely sung, and so are Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations and the instrumental backup provided by musical director-conductor Kimberly Grigsby, a nine-piece orchestra, and Kai Harada’s impeccable sound design. (Since no song list insert was provided this reviewer, I cannot single out individual titles.)
Under Pam MacKinnon’s light-as-a-soufflé direction, leading lady Soo makes for a simply entrancing Amélie, who in Chanler-Berat’s nerdy-dreamy charmer of a Nino has met her perfect leading-man match.
Amélie, A New Musical’s supporting cast of New York-based triple-threats are quirky delights each and every one, most of them executing multiple roles to Sam Pinkleton’s enchanting musical staging and choreography. (Dance captain Emily Afton and Jacob Keith Watson are swings. Lily Sanfelippo is Young Amélie understudy.)
Last, but in this case most definitely not least, Amélie, A New Musical’s award-winning team of Broadway designers (David Zinn, scenic and costume design; Jane Cox and Mark Barton, lighting design; Peter Nigrini, projection design, and Charles G. LaPointe, wig design) have created a storybook world where saturated-colored fancy takes flight, stage wizardry only scarcely suggested by production stills.
Vocal arrangements are by Grigsby and Messé. Casting is by Jim Carnahan, CSA, and Stephen Kopel, CSA. James Harker is production stage manager.
With Soo’s star on the rise and audiences more in need of romance, hope, and happy endings than ever (and with some artful tweaking here and there), Amélie, A New Musical may be just what the Broadway doctor ordered.
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles.
December 16, 2016
Photos: Joan Marcus