"Amélie, A New Musical," which began at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year, has brought its whimsical magic to the Ahmanson Theatre, where a retooled production starring Phillipa Soo (late of Broadway's "Hamilton") had its official opening on Friday.
The show is headed to Broadway in the spring, but L.A. has the timing just right: This fanciful musical is the perfect holiday bauble.
Most people tell me that they can't remember a thing about Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film, only that they loved it and Audrey Tautou. The screenplay, written by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant, is gaily evanescent, telling the loopy story of a young woman named Amélie who moves to Paris after a lonely childhood that overdeveloped her powers of imagination and underdeveloped her ability to form intimate connections.
In a quandary about how to grow up without diminishing her capacity for wonder, Amélie sets out to become a secular saint, discreetly intruding into the lives of others to turn somber narratives momentarily joyous. The film follows her adventures, which lead inevitably if unhurriedly to a romance with Nino, another free spirit she spies at a train station photo booth collecting pictures for a collage he's assembling. This visually arresting off-kilter film proceeds like an urban fairy tale, capering through dark passageways toward a tentatively happy ending.
The musical adaptation, written by Craig Lucas (book), Daniel Messé (music) and Nathan Tysen (who co-wrote the lyrics with Messé), reinvents the movie's frolicsome charm. The production, directed by Pam MacKinnon, opts for handcrafted effects — magic that doesn't hide its strings. A winking spirit prevails.
The only companion of young homeschooled Amélie (played adorably by Savvy Crawford) is her pet goldfish, Fluffy, which is brought to life variously by a performer in a grade-school costume and a fluttering object on a long pole. The time capsule that adult Amélie discovers in her apartment, a small box left by a former child tenant whom she decides to hunt down, is raised into the light as though it were filled with enchantment, which of course it is thanks to Amélie's sympathetic vision.
The scenic design by David Zinn (who also did the costumes) conjures a graphic novel version of Paris, not so much the City of Light as a twinkling theatrical village adorned with festive decorations suitable for any dark time of year. The Café des 2 Moulins where Amélie works is the most elaborately drawn of the musical's locales, but this Montmartre might just as well be in downtown L.A.'s Arts District. The true locale of "Amélie" is the theater.
Admittedly, the Ahmanson's large stage isn't the ideal platform for the show's visual sprightliness. There are times when it seems like an amuse-bouche is being served on a turkey platter. I longed for more intimacy with Soo's Amélie, who's so busy trotting from one swirling scene to the next that she doesn't always come into sharp enough focus.
Samantha Barks played the role at Berkeley Rep, and though I had similar qualms about the introduction of the character in the musical's original outing (it takes some time to assimilate to the show's quirky style), Barks' characterization grew in sparkle as the story developed. An exquisite soprano, Soo is in looks, demeanor and voice a more natural Amélie, yet she seems to be relying at this point more on her presence than her acting.
Soo's Amélie is shy, beautiful, genial — and a little bland. The character's individual contours aren't fully drawn yet. The window Amélie keeps staring out of is meant to frame a woman who is in the process of forming herself, but we need to know a little more about this germinating entity. She is, after all, anchoring the show, a new challenge for Soo coming off the ensemble experience of "Hamilton," in which she played with groovy delicacy Alexander Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth Schuyler.
But these quibbles likely won't keep you from getting swept up in the fun of this larky show. The music, which is nearly continuous, provides a magic carpet of orchestral strings upon which the production floats at will. Musical director, conductor and keyboardist Kimberly Grigsby draws out a sumptuous sound from her orchestra. And every time Soo opens her mouth to sing, the stars in Paris' night sky shine brighter.
The songs by Messé and Tysen encompass a wide variety of moods and styles. "Goodbye, Amélie," an Elton John parody/homage performed by Randy Blair in souped-up Crocodile Rockish garb, is the jaunty showstopper. "Thin Air," a dreamy ballad for Nino (a dashingly nerdy Adam Chanler-Berat), harmoniously escalates the romantic chase between this solitary artist and the fey young woman who keeps leaving clues for him to follow.
The supporting cast overplays the wackiness of the café denizens. These characters, a collection of lonely hearts and neurotics, are meant to be exaggerated types, but the portraits could do with a bit of comic subtlety. (The Ahmanson is a cavernous house, but even the gnome that Amélie kidnaps from her father's garden to send on a world tour seems blown up out of proportion.)
Manoel Felciano (who plays Amélie's doctor father) and Tony Sheldon (who plays Amélie's elderly artist neighbor) more effectively balance cartoon with character. Blair, a blast as Elton, is always good for a chuckle as the struggling poet Hipolito.
The musical's ending is touching as the distance between Amélie and Nino shrinks until there's no place left for her to hide. After working so hard on behalf of the happiness of others, Amélie now gets the chance to improve her own lot. It's still not entirely clear what either character sees in the other, but the classic formula of romance doesn't require the parties to complete a dating questionnaire.
"Amélie" is the type of offbeat musical that is best appreciated if stumbled upon serendipitously. It's the still delectable sweet lightness of this theatrical macaron that we savor most.
'Amélie, A New Musical'
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Jan. 15 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $25-$125 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
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