Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s good-natured 2001 film, was produced for an estimated $10.7 million and has grossed $132 million to date. That’s not bad for a sentimental fantasy about a painfully shy young woman – the film made an indie star of Audrey Tautou – who is inspired after the death of Princess Diana to spread anonymous good cheer to her Paris acquaintances.
“It is so hard to make a nimble, charming comedy,” Roger Ebert wrote of the film, in contrast to many of his more hard-nosed colleagues. “So hard to get the tone right and find actors who embody charm instead of impersonating it. It takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy. Amélie takes those chances, and gets away with them.”
I’m with Ebert on Amélie – A New Musical, in the full expectation that this deliberately naive show, which opened Monday night on Broadway after runs in Berkeley, California and Los Angeles will divide critics and audiences much as the film did. The musical adaptation, with a book by Craig Lucas (An American In Paris, Prelude To A Kiss) and score by Daniel Messé (music and lyrics) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics), stars Hamilton Tony nominee Phillipa Soo (she was Eliza, the missus) in the title role.
We first meet Amélie as a little girl (the charming Savvy Crawford) so desperate for love from her caring but ice-cold parents that she forms an intimate relationship with a pet goldfish. Loneliness leads her to isolation when as a young woman she moves to Paris, finding work in a Montmartre spot called Café des 2 Moulins. No gamy Toulouse-Lautrec types lurk in the shadows here, only sad-sacks disappointed in life and love: The owner, a former circus artist left with a limp when her philandering husband literally dropped her; a struggling poet; a waitress whose husband left her and died in a plane crash; a cynical philosopher; and a hypochondriacal counter-girl.
From her tidy flat, Amélie watches an artist living below and seemingly stuck on a single canvas, and in town she observes the cruel greengrocer abusing his dim-bulb delivery boy. And in the Metro, she spots a mysterious young man who collects the discarded remnants of pictures from a photo booth. Shortly after the shattering news of Diana’s death in a car crash, Amélie finds a tin box full of a child’s keepsakes and determines to return it to its owner, setting her off on her do-good path.
The film, with its color-saturated comic-strip palette, frequently detoured into Amélie’s head as she wondered, for example, how many people in Paris were experiencing orgasm in a given moment (15, it turned out, as we saw and heard cameos of ecstasy) or what Elton John’s Di tribute must have been like. The hues of Amélie the musical are more poster-board primary – especially David Zinn’s costumes, though his dreamy sets are in a kind of hallucinated Art Nouveau style (see a bit of it here), as if everything had been dipped in acid and was melting like MacArthur Park.
The key challenge in adapting Amélie for the stage, and even more so as a musical, is that the central character doesn’t speak much. Rather than interpolated film sequences, director Pam MacKinnon surrounds her star with the company acting out her internal responses: Falling in love, her heart races and suddenly she’s surrounded by everyone opening and shutting bellows-like boxes with pumping hearts. The whimsy, if you can stand it, is thus multiplied exponentially, and your response to the show will depend very much on your tolerance for actors with goldfish heads and flapping arm-fins, and the like.
I had the luxury of seeing Amélie twice, and I admit to finding its charms more readily revealed on second viewing. The score, for one thing, is more sophisticated than a single hearing suggests, and perhaps more cunning: There are what struck me as Sondheim Sunday In The Park in-jokes when the score turns to the knowing painter (played with lovely humanity by Tony Sheldon). And there is delicacy in the love story of Amélie and the young man (Adam Chanler-Berat) with the curious hobby.
As for Soo, who now has her third leading role (after Hamilton and, before that, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812), this is the best showcase yet for a star who shimmers more than she dazzles: Her pipes can fill the house but more often the sound is of a polished pop warbler, and that’s perfect in this milieu. The authors, along with MacKinnon and choreographer Sam Pinkleton, avoid gratuitous winking, trusting both Amélie and Amélie to work their charms. You’ll buy it, or you won’t. By the end, I was a bit in love, even if – as so often is the case with the real thing – it wasn’t love at first sight.