“Amélie,” the new musical based on the offbeat 2001 French film that made a star out of a pixieish Audrey Tautou, does more than translate for an American audience the tale of a minor miracle worker who stumbles upon love while trying to brighten the lives of others.
The show, which is having its world premiere here at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, boldly transfigures the whimsical charms of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movie into sparkling musical comedy.
Imagine one renowned pastry chef reinventing another’s famed crème brûlée. Naturally, they’re different, but the innovative lightness and crackly caramelized coating have the same desired effect.
This tale of a lonely dreamer, on a quest to dispense magic to the lovelorn, is as bouncy as before. But the shadows have been rearranged and some of the narrative wispiness has been cleaned up.
The musical, which has a book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messé and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messé, isn’t as beholden to its Parisian setting. The Montmartre neighborhood in which Amélie lives is merely a cartoon sketch, and the Café des Deux Moulins where she works is commonly referred to by the characters as the “Two Windmills.”
When Amélie, played by Samantha Barks in a manner that is less ethereal than Tautou’s but just as winsome, tries to disguise her voice on the telephone, she sounds a bit like a Southern kook out of Flannery O’Connor. But this isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, for the real location of the musical is unapologetically the theater.
The production, directed with unostentatious verve by Pam MacKinnon, slyly revels in the infinite possibilities of theatrical merrymaking. The spry and simple visuals find stage analogies for the way Jeunet’s movie celebrates the eccentric fluidity of the cinematic imagination. David Zinn’s scenic design and Jane Cox’s lighting create a unique wonderland simply by changing the hues from blue to lavender, launching a few gold stars and creating pockets of darkened mystery amid the shifting scenery.
Amélie’s childhood losses — first a beloved goldfish, later, in a freak accident, her stern and overanxious mother — are enacted with puppets. The character’s back story (featuring a delightful Savvy Crawford as young Amélie) is largely dispatched musically, in song and jaunty recitative. Messé's music sets the narrative in swift carousel motion.
The danger with the material is that its daffy sweetness can grow cloying. The movie’s occasionally saccharine tone made some critics’ teeth ache. But the musical wisely doesn’t oversell Amélie’s adorableness. It allows us instead to discover the quirks and cracks of her character.
Barks, a vivid Éponine in the 2012 film of “Les Misérables,” is as sprightly and otherworldly as the garden gnome Amélie uproots from her widowed father’s backyard to encourage him to venture out into the world again. But she’s marked by a lonely detachment, and her fey air can’t conceal her very real, even if unarticulated, sadness.
Nino, the man Amélie falls for after repeatedly seeing him hanging around a metro station photo booth, is less of a fantasy figure than he was in the movie. A down-and-out young artist who lives in a sex shop, he resembles in Adam Chanler-Berat’s performance a struggling art school grad — the kind of guy you might see smiling to himself on a train with only a few bucks in his pocket but with an imagination bursting with astonishing ideas.
Much of the romantic plot revolves around the cat-and-mouse game Amélie plays with Nino after she picks up the portfolio of photos he accidentally left behind. But the romantic outcome, while assured, is less the point than the puzzle of what’s holding her back from making herself available to someone who has beguiled her as much as she has beguiled him.
“Amélie” doesn’t try to blow you away with showmanship. The scale of the musical is relatively intimate, and its oddball style has a novelty quality that can seem slight, particularly in the beginning. But the show deepens as it progresses. Small but profound, it had for me by the end all the surprise and wonder of a pink shell echoing the sea.
The score, with its tinkling music box lilt rousing itself with ever more urgency, flowers with originality. Barks and Chanler-Berat, both in possession of sterling voices, rise in stature when they sing. The impressive lyric writing of Tysen (who, with his frequent partner, Chris Miller, co-wrote the score for Broadway-bound “Tuck Everlasting”) and Messé (the founder and principal songwriter of the band Hem) made me want to listen harder.
The title phrase from “How to Tell Time” recurs like a leitmotif, accruing resonance each time it’s repeated. The surreal Elton John parody “Goodbye, Amélie” is the flamboyant comic high point, but the best songs mix outlandish wit with genuine feeling.
The supporting cast, a refreshingly motley crew, doesn’t “play” French. This can cause a little confusion in the scenes at the café, where I found the broadness of the characterizations to be slightly more disorienting.
But once the production’s graphic-novel-like aesthetic is established, the performances become more endearing. The Two Windmills world inhabited by Maria-Christina Oliveras’ Suzanne, Randy Blair’s Hipoloto, Alyse Alan Louis’ Georgette and Paul Whitty’s Joseph is meant to exist here and nowhere else.
Lucas, who wrote the book for the current Broadway hit “An American in Paris,” is a playwright renowned for his adventurousness and emotional honesty. “Amélie” connects his work in the American musical with his touching comedy “Prelude to a Kiss” — both taking in the demands of love while tracking the inexorable movement of time.
Amélie is a character who must move beyond her own fantasies of how things ought to be if she’s ever to open herself up to the reality of another person. Nino sees the game she’s playing, flirting with him from the shadows but too fearful to reveal her heart.
In his stirring aria “Thin Air,” he diagnoses the isolation driving her compulsive need to play: “It’s easy to vanish when no one’s around/Your footsteps fall silent as snow on the ground.”
Amélie has enjoyed leaving magical bread crumbs for others to follow, but now she must follow someone else’s lead. It’s a credit to the enchantment of the authors and MacKinnon’s production that this storybook ending feels both earned and true.