Sunday, April 9, 2017

Broadway Review—New Musical “Amélie”

Music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Nathan Tysen & Daniel Messé; book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Pam Mackinnon; music staging & choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Opened April 3, 2017
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street

Savvy Crawford and Phillipa Soo in Amélie (photo: Joan Marcus)
Despite its renown, I’ve never much cared for the forced whimsy of the 2001 French movie Amélie, which is enervating and tiring in equal measure; only the luminescent Audrey Tautou as the eponymous heroine saves it from its own cloyingness. Likewise, in the labored musical version of Amélie, Phillipa Soo is sweetly unassuming, with an affecting, natural (and unforced) singing voice, but the adaptation even one-ups the original at being annoyingly eccentric.

After her beloved Princess Diana is killed in a car crash in the heart of Paris, Amélie—a shy young woman with a messy upbringing (her mom was killed when a suicidal jumper fell on top of her and her doctor dad misdiagnosed her with a bad heart)—resolves to be a do-gooder, making things right for acquaintances and strangers who need her special dispensations.

When she sees Nino, a strange young man, she stalks him in her inimitable way, and he eventually succumbs to her offbeat charms. The movie, directed with grotesque visual flourishes by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, resorted to close-ups of Tautou’s winsome face whenever it got too eye-rollingly self-absorbed. The musical approximates the movie’s oddball style through David Zinn’s clever sets and Amanda Villalobos’ cartoonish puppets, alongside stridently overwrought acting by the supporting cast, many doubling as Amélie’s friends, co-workers and Parisian neighbors.

Director Pam Mackinnon seems at a loss as to how to navigate such tricky thickets of pseudo-surrealism, and Daniel Messé’s score—with mediocre lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen—doesn’t overcome Craig Lucas’s patchy book. Messé’s songs are typical of today’s Broadway, poppy and treacly by turns, with not a single memorable (or hummable) tune in sight.

Moments in Amélie are uncomfortable reminders of other recent musicals, as if there’s a Broadway blueprint that needs to be followed to the letter: when Amélie’s female café coworkers break into sassy song, it’s like we’ve suddenly dropped in on Waitress. And when “Sir Elton John” materializes to sing a duet with Amélie—the tenuous connection is that the real Elton sang “Candle in the Wind” at Di’s funeral—the show stops dead and never really recovers.

As the young Amélie, the aptly-named Savvy Crawford has a scarily impressive stage presence, which somewhat compensates for Adam Chanler-Berat’s dud of a Nino. Again, Phillipa Soo sings beautifully and appears appropriately gamine while effortlessly negotiating the Montmartre set’s stairs. But Amélie the musical is ultimately as shallow as its cinematic forebear.

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