Los Angeles Theater Review: AMÉLIE, A NEW MUSICAL (pre-Broadway run at the Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on December 19, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

WHIMSY WASHOUT

Adapting a film or play into a musical is a dicey proposition. There’s no perfect formula, but theater’s great librettists—Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, et al.—knew that however well the source material worked, scenes had to be shuffled, characters dropped, and songs written to establish character and advance plot. The creators of Amélie, A New Musical took on the daunting task of turning the beloved French film Amélie into a stage musical, but they painted themselves into a corner.

With a book by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Light in the Piazza), a score by lyricist Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting) and composer/lyricist Daniel Messé and starring the underutilized Phillipa Soo (Tony nominee, Hamilton) this whimsical world—think Dr. Seuss, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and Matilda, The Musical—is populated by a consistently outstanding cast, excelling as both individual performers and a razor-sharp ensemble. Director Pam McKinnon and choreographer Sam Pinkleton have created a rich (in both expense and visuals) tapestry composed of wonderful characters and inventive staging.

But the writers hewed too closely to the structure of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant’s original screenplay (2001), which follows a reclusive girl who effects change among the eccentrics in her world but lacks the courage to follow her own heart. The film’s episodic nature doesn’t translate well at the Ahmanson Theatre because songs weren’t added to flesh out character. Indeed, not one of these oddball characters has a strong through-line. As such, our central heroine lacks a much-needed dramatic arc and the musical lacks a thrust (using the ensemble to narrate like a Greek Chorus doesn’t help to define her).

When Amélie has a meet cute with struggling artist Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat) at a metro station photo booth, we are rooting for them to get together. But her shyness consistently overcomes inquisitiveness, and she keeps running away from the chance to hook up; all of that running away and running away and running away just stops being charming after awhile, creating ennui. This, combined with too much focus on the fascinatingly quirky characters in Amélie’s world, means we aren’t on board with the cat-and-mouse romance at the center of this lost opportunity; the kiss that we all saw coming from the start occurs long, long, long after we have lost interest.

There is a distance between us and Amélie as far-reaching as that between Paris and New York, where this confusing adaptation will have its Broadway premiere at the Walter Kerr Theatre, beginning performances on March 9, 2017 and opening April 3. But I can’t see possibility for success unless the writers break up the episodic monotony with break-out solo numbers that create living breathing characters in this kooky world. And while so much of the score sounds lovely, most of the songs aren’t particularly memorable, and many possess a certain melodic sameness.

Also problematic is keeping the Paris locale and French names but omitting a French flavor in the nearly dialogue-free score (following suit, the actors are dialect-free). Can you imagine if this had been the approach to Gigi?

Yet even while the show’s soul is as French as, say, French Toast, the enthralling, visually appealing design is reminiscent of the charming, color-saturated illustrations of Madeline, the series of children’s books about a Parisian girl written and illustrated by Austrian-American author Ludwig Bemelmans.

Contrary to the end results of this one-act—retooled since its premiere at Berkeley Rep last year—is one of the most exciting, engaging, embracing opening numbers I’ve seen in years. After an introduction to the people who will populate the plot, we meet a spirited but awkward child, Amélie Poulin (clever and self-assured 10-year-old Savvy Crawford), who is home-schooled and isolated by a stern, authoritarian mother and a cold, distracted father. For reasons that are never fully explained, Amélie’s imagination is on overdrive; it’s enthralling when her goldfish, Fluffy, becomes a giant anthropomorphic being (puppet design, Amanda Villalobos), making it all the more tragic when dad makes her get rid of the beloved but sidetracking pet.

The show is Story Theatre on steroids at this point and it’s filled with nothing but terrific attributes: Sharp lyrics; lilting melodies; bejeweled harp-filled orchestrations (the great Bruce Coughlin); and loveable characters performed by a winning cast made up of actors of all shapes and sizes. David Zinn’s sets and costumes are whimsical, offbeat, ingenious, and effective. His main set is comprised of tall, monochromatically painted stacks of angled armoires, cabinets and other pieces of furniture, which magically transform into various Paris locales throughout the story (even the proscenium is angled). Zinn’s costumes are wonderfully character specific and often spectacular. Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design is lush and appropriately dramatic; Peter Nigrini’s cool projections are reminiscent of Disney’s early Xerography-based animation; and songs segue from one dramatic beat into the next without a break for applause, so the show moves forward beautifully. None of the actors appear obviously mic’d (Kai Harada’s sound is subtle and beautifully equalized), and the vocals are outstanding without being overwhelming (Musical Director Kimberly Grigsby).

Soon, Amélie is an adult (Ms. Soo), living alone in Paris and working as a waitress in a Montmartre café. After inadvertently discovering a box containing a boy’s childhood treasures, long ago hidden in her flat, she embarks on a quest to return it to its owner. After succeeding, she derives inspiration from the untimely death of Princess Diana—the “People’s Princess” famous for her tireless acts of charity—and continues on her mission of bestowing small, anonymous kindnesses on those around her, thereby enriching their lives.

Not long thereafter, this soufflé of a show becomes as flat as a crêpe. There is a delightful song which has Amélie imagining a flamboyant Elton John-type entertainer (Randy Blair) singing a tribute to her, but it doesn’t resonate. Sure, the audience loved Blair’s kooky impersonation, but it made for a hollow victory. Such moments may give us insight into Amélie’s fancy, but we never get an opportunity to see inside of her heart.

In addition to Soo, Blair, Crawford, and Chanler-Berat, the cast features Emily Afton, David Andino, Heath Calvert, Alison Cimmet, Manoel Felciano, Harriett D. Foy, Alyse Alan Louis, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Lily Sanfelippo, Tony Sheldon, Jacob Keith Watson and Paul Whitty.

poster photo by Cheshire Isaacs
production photos by Joan Marcus

Amélie, A New Musical
Center Theatre Group
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre
135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on January 15, 2017
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG
for more info, visit Amélie on Broadway

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dale Reynolds December 19, 2016 at 10:00 pm

Excellent review. Well written and extremely thoughtful. I wish I’d seen the same musical as this critic did (oh! I did!) and liked it (boy! I didn’t!). Beautiful production, but it bored me with its inability to make us care about her plight. Sad. But I didn’t care for Matilda The Musical, either. Lack of whimsy, on my end, perhaps.

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Cris Franco December 20, 2016 at 12:44 am

You’re too kind, Mr. Frankel. Amélie, A New Musical is downright boring. From Ms. Soo’s vacant “Dora the Explorer” expression to Mssrs. Tysen and Messé’s inconsequential score, the show literally put the man seated next to me to sleep. Should be retitled AMBIEN THE MUSICAL.

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Cathy C December 20, 2016 at 9:09 am

You actually “appreciated” (for want of a better word) details along the way much more than I could muster. I was bored silly and wasn’t buying ANY of it. Choreography was bad and the songs all sounded the same. French toast indeed (loved that analogy!). Plus, there’s no story to hang on to. I couldn’t get out of there quick enough! (I thought the kid had a lovely vitality though.)

Can’t really blame the actors, it’s the lackluster script, music and direction.

But what did I really think?!!! 🙂

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Abe Theodore December 20, 2016 at 9:13 am

This is a very perceptive review. You give real constructive criticism instead of just “knocking” the show for not working (and it’s very problematic). And you compliment in areas that deserve compliment. They should listen to you.

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Deborah Johansen December 20, 2016 at 11:56 pm

Wow. Mr. Frankel’s review is outstanding! It was exactly what a theater review is supposed to be. Too bad he does not review NY Broadway shows.

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Mike Mandan December 21, 2016 at 8:33 am

I saw this at Berkeley Rep — it seems like the creators learned nothing from their outing in the Bay Area. Sounds like very little has changed. I predict this soggy soufflé will not rise when it gets to “Ze Brodvey”.

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Cris Franco May 6, 2017 at 7:48 pm

Just weeks after opening, AMBIEN will be closing on Broadway.

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