By Patrick Hurley
There is a moment, less than a minute into the production of Amélie, a new musical playing now at the Ahmanson, where anyone who is familiar with the 2001 French film must abandon the expectation that all of the cinematic devices that made the film alive and vibrant will be translated into hyper-theatrical ones. This does not happen. Instead, we are taken into a world of frenzied activity and cluttered design disguised as a day-dreamy internal landscape.
Amélie is a by-the-numbers big budget musical whose reliance on spectacle is useful as distraction only, the pathos is completely drowned in a sea of shiny objects. This production pointedly aims at the heart, proliferated by easy manipulation and clichés, and sadly misses its mark. And so what was a satisfying cinematic confection becomes a somewhat saccharin theatrical trifle.
The story of Amélie Poulain (Phillipa Soo) begins with her childhood. Young Amélie (A wonderful Savvy Crawford) is misdiagnosed with a rare heart disease, is homeschooled by her mother and spends most of her time alone in her room daydreaming. This is manifest on stage by a musical number with her pet fish named fluffy, and while the number could be considered cute, it’s an obvious attempt to illustrate imagination, and ironically not at all imaginative. After her mother dies in a freak accident, and Amélie grows up she leaves provincial life for the magically romantic city of Paris. Flash forward five years, Amélie is working as a waitress in a café with her keen imagination and withdrawn personality still dominating most of her life. That is of course until she sees Nino (Adam Chandler-Berat), a man that seems familiar to her, because he’s a lot like her…because there’s someone out there for all of us…get it? And so Nino will become the man that falls in love with her.
What really motivates Amélie, however, is in 1997 when she sees on the news that Princess Diana has died in Paris. This ignites the idea that life is fleeting and should be lived to its fullest. Amélie then sets off to change the world by changing the lives of the people she interacts with everyday. And of course in the process is mostly changed herself.
This productions greatest strength is in the art of distraction. At nearly two hours without an intermission, it moves from place to place, from scene to scene, and from device to device with enough speed to keep us from ever settling into it. Which means we don’t get bored. It’s only the last twenty minutes or so when the rising action slows down too much and it starts to drag as we wait for the inevitable climactic moment. Any informed audience member will always be a few steps ahead of this story, and so the dazzling visuals are what we anticipate. And this production knows how to keep us distracted. David Zinn’s scenic and costume designs are impressive, but the production is thematically messy. There is a clutter of wardrobes that are used as entrances and exits, and they seem to be stacked two stories high, which gives the production a strange Young Adult fantasy feel. There are huge lit up signs for the café and a sex shop, and a large backdrop that changes to represent every location we’re in. So sometimes it feels like a fantasy, and sometimes it feels like a big spectacle, and sometimes it feels like a niche musical, and then it’s a love story. It’s inconsistent. Which could be part of its appeal if the book, written by Craig Lucas had more emphasis on theme, and the production toned down its overwhelming spectacle. And then there’s Peter Nigrini’s projection design, which makes the Metro scenes feel the most active of all the worlds created. But unfortunately, all of it really only adds up to the fact that this production is expensive.
Then there’s the songs, with music by Daniel Messé, and lyrics by Messè and Nathan Tyson. The music is sweet and slightly throwback, but the songs do not resonate. None of them land any kind of punch. No one will be humming any of them in a day, because you won’t remember them. Some of them feel out of place, while others are trying too hard,
and they range somewhere between slightly humorous to real heavy-handed, an inconsistency that is contradicted by the fact that they all kind of sound the same.
Among the other inconsistencies are the use of a chorus that serves as Amélie’s internal world. It’s there at the beginning, and then somewhere along the way they just aren’t there anymore? Director Pam MacKinnon had a huge challenge with the shifting of tone that continues to happen, and rather than trying to unify the piece tonally, it just simply keeps becoming something different. A challenge also for the actors, who mostly rise to the challenge.
The entire ensemble of actors is great. As Amélie, Phillipa Soo is sweet and endearing and vocally wonderful, as is her young counterpart Savvy Crawford. Likewise, Adam Chanler-Berat has an easy charm and beautiful voice. The two are capable of creating magic together on stage. This production gives them very little chance for that, and so it feels like a big opportunity missed.
In the end, this production, which is headed to Broadway, doesn’t quite settle into itself. It’s a love story, a Carpe Diem story, an overcoming obstacles story. And while the film was an intimate portrait of the perils of looking at life from a distance, this production is way too in your face to recapture the beauty of its predecessor, and so wants to become something else, but sticks just enough to its source material that it can’t get there. It mostly just distracts us and itself from anything tangible.
Amélie a New Musical
Book by Craig Lucas
Music by Daniel Messé
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Ticket Prices: $25 – $125
(Ticket prices are subject to change)
Tickets are available:
Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.972.4400 • In person at the Center Theatre Group Box Of ce at the Music Center
Group Sales: 213.972.7231
Deaf community information and charge: visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ACCESS
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
At the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012