Broadway

Aisle Say On The Square: Percy and Amélie: Friends of the Family?

Aisle Say On The Square: Percy and Amélie: Friends of the Family?
The lightning Thief
The Lightning Thief is one of the first, if not the first, offerings of TheatreWorks New York, the commercial arm of TheatreWorks USA. It’s a full length show, and predictably, it’s aimed primarily at younger viewers; but ironically, it’s not among the most sophisticated musicals they’ve ever offered.  It may, however, be among the noisiest.  A modern reworking  of Greek god mythology, it’s based on the first of a series of hugely popular novels for Young Readers by Perry Riordan,  about a misfit teenager named Percy Jackson, who discovers he is really the descendent of gods and—shades of Harry Potter et al–finds he has super powers, a mission and a quest to go on.
The Lightning Thief
The libretto by Joe Tracz and the music & lyrics by Rob Rokicki, hit the ground running and at high pop music octane and rarely pause to calm down will give the audience a breather during the show’s two-hours-including-intermission length.  Basically the story delineates a travel quest, so the narrative is episodic and mostly about  Percy conquering one dark obstacle after another,  personified by beings of evil intent.
Carrie Compere, Chris McCarrell

Carrie Compere, Chris McCarrell. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

There are no particular harmonic or melodic surprises in the score, it’s all quite familiar within a populist vein, but that seems to be all that’s needed, and indeed all that’s required, to satisfy the target audience  in a musical sense. For some tastes, the script may be a little too meta and self-consciously theatrical, occasionally winking outside the box of verisimilitude, but that too seems to delight the young and family audiences who would seem to make up the bulk of its patrons. More in-depth criticism than that seems a not-particularly-useful exercise, in light of the fact that if you know the books, as most of the audience seems to, you’re riding a wavelength that probably carried you to the theater in the first place. And it seems as if, in satisfying those expectations, the show is doing exactly what it was put together to do.

Chris McCarrell

Chris McCarrell. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

Under the direction of Steven Brackett, a mostly young cast, most of whom play multiple roles,  attack the material with a breathless, though calculated, gusto on a set far more suggestive then explicit, which is really just a metal frame skeleton with entrances exits and catwalks. In the tradition of all TheatreWorks shows, this one is clearly, eventually, meant to travel (and not just alternate universes).

The most important thing to consider before you attend the lightning thief is not how good it may “objectively” be by musical theater standards, but whether or not what I’ve just described will tickle your fancy or that of any youngsters you may bring to the party.
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Amélie, Phillipa Soo
Though a cleanly rendered adaptation of a popular, early-new-millennium movie, Amélie seems much less sure of its target audience. I hasten to add, there’s a degree to which I think considering a “target audience” in mainstream Broadway musical theatre, beyond the soft considerations of family-friendly vs. adult, can be a sure way to dilute optimal creativity and best impulses. I mostly believe that if artists of sufficient ability are in an environment where they can just write passionately what they care about, and come up with a solidly scored and structured show that successfully fulfills and satisfies the promise of its opening moments—a big if, to be sure, but that’s the brass ring all of us on the creative carousel reach for—audiences will find the show.
Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo
But Amelie exists in a kind of gray area between adult and family-friendly.
The heroine of the title starts as a little girl (Savvy Crawford) in Pars of 1975, raised by two parents with intimacy issues (Alison Cimmet and Manoel Feliciano) who decide the best thing for their daughter is to isolate her from society and the emotional harm it can inflict (or so they think; really they seek to isolate her from emotion, period). Anyway, mom dies in a freak accident, dad becomes more reserved still and Amélie becomes a young woman (elfin and magical Phillipa Soo) in 1997, who works as a waitress in a neighborhood bistro, where she befriends the idiosyncratic regulars; and who, on her way between work and home, flits through the Paris streets causing random, anonymous acts of happiness. Then she encounters a young man who catches her fancy (Adam Chandler-Berat), as she in turn catches his, but it’s a quick Metro platform encounter and she doesn’t stick around; leaving Nino, the young man, with an indelible but frustratingly anonymous impression. Can he find her again? Will true love bring them together?
Amélie, Phillipa Soo

Phillipa Soo

While those are questions one might well infuse with some suspense (because of course we know the answers) as in She Loves Me, where plot machinations truly do provide obstacles to be overcome, and characters have clear objectives, Amélie the musical and Amélie the character are softer than that. She has to conquer her existential shyness, but that’s not really a storyjourney, it’s an internal negotiation—as is, really, her trajectory through the whole piece—and thus the show manages to be perfectly pleasant but mostly free of consequential dramatic tension.

This is the kind of tone poem films do well, because film technique allows an audience to bliss into an impressionistic state. Musicals don’t really have that particular strength in their wheelhouse however; even though theatre is a poetic medium, musical theatre narration depends on a certain hard literalism (not to be confused with literal-mindedness) to motor from point to point; so what the creative team, Craig Lucas (book), Daniel Messé (music), Nathan Tyson & Daniel Messé (lyrics) and Pam McKinnon (direction) have done is to frame the story in a design and vocabulary that evokes children’s storybooks and French film animation—and flourishes that would not be out of place in a Theatreworks show, also including a cast who, except for Amélie and Nino, conspicuously play multiple roles.
The content, though, fits the overall style only inconsistently; it’s not quite innocent enough for children and not quite naughty (or cleverly subversive) enough for adults. And, as I say, not quite plotted enough to keep you riveted. And while it can charm those willing to be patient with it, Amélie can’t overcome the sensibility of a viewer who demands more story substance to hold his or her concentration. Thus, after a fashion, it wages its own creative stalemate.
Which is not to say anything about it is stale. Again, perfectly pleasant. And all delivered with assured professionalism. But if you asked me why anyone who isn’t a musical theatre completist absolutely had to be there to see for him- or herself…I’m not entirely sure I could make the case…

Broadway

David Spencer is an award-winning composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, author and musical theatre teacher. He has written music and lyrics for the Richard Rodgers Development Award-winning musical The Fabulist, which also contributed to his winning a Kleban lyrics award and several Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation grants. He is also lyricist-librettist for two musicals with composer Alan Menken: Weird Romance (WPA 1992, York 2004) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its sold out, extended world premiere in Montreal in Summer 2015; cast album release soon. He made his professional debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation of La Bohéme at the Public Theatre; and he has since written music and lyrics for Theatreworks/USA’s all-new, award-winning Young Audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1996) and Les Misérables (1999) (book and direction for both by Rob Barron). Currently he is writing book, music and lyrics for a musical based on the iconic Russian novel The Golden Calf. Spencer’s published books are the Alien Nation novel Passing Fancy (Pocket, 1994), The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann, 2005, a regularly reprinted industry standard) and the script of Weird Romance (Samuel French, 1993). He is on faculty and teaches at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and has taught at HB Studio, the Workshop Studio Theater and Goldsmith’s College in London. His primary professional affiliations are BMI, The Dramatists Guild and The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

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