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He Says: Amélie: What’s She So Afraid Of?

He Says: Amélie: What’s She So Afraid Of?

Amélie, Phillipa Soo

If you ask anyone who saw the French film this musical is based on, a few words come up constantly.  ‘Sweet’, ‘pretty’, and ‘adorable ‘ are the main adjectives that get attached to that 2001 film, directed by the always interesting Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Beyond that, everyone’s memory of Amélie (also known as Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain falls into two very distinct categories; the ones who love it and watch it again and again, and those that can’t really tell you anything beyond those three adjectives. I saw the Broadway musical adaptation with someone who adores the film (and the score of the film) wholeheartedly. I am of the later. I remember seeing it but not much else except for its brightly colored palette and appealing leading lady, Audrey Tautou. If you ask me about this musical, with book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messe, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messe, I will probably say the exact same thing, in addition to those three adjectives. I might also say, ‘nice’, which, and I’m quoting a prominent Broadway producer, is “Not a pull quote for a poster”.

Amélie, Phillipa Soo

It is very beautifully crafted, this quick 100 minute musical. The set is magically off-centered and colorfully joyous, as are the costumes, both designed by David Zinn (Fun Home). It reminds me visually of a cheery and brighter Mathilde. It’s inventive and possesses a child-like whimsy that is very pleasing to the eye. After the first pretty song, “Times Are Hard For Dreamers“, we happily join the young Amélie as she starts out as a curious but neglected child, (a wonderfully spunky, Savvy Crawford), barely touched by her psychologically challenged father, (Manoel Felciano) and distant mother, portrayed with a kooky charm by Alison Cimmet (She Loves Me) who (awkwardly) dies when Amélie is still quite young, killed by a falling suicidal man. She grows into a the young woman, that pops out of her childhood home front door to greet her younger self with suitcase in hand as she leaves her isolating father for Paris. From this very strange but touching beginning, the musical wears a big grin on its cute face, much like the leading lady who graces this story with a wonderfully beautiful performance and an infectious appeal. Phillipa Soo radiates the pretty charming Amélie from the moment she steps on stage, and although I thought she was lovely in Hamilton and the off-broadway production of Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 (click here for the Broadway production review), it is here, in the staging of this odd-ball creation, when I can fully understand her star power.  Her gorgeously voiced Amélie is sweet and scared, an innocent product of neurotic parenting and a tragic maternal beginning, but brave enough to throw herself out into a whimsical depiction of contemporary Parisian life.

Amélie, Phillipa Soo
From the first initial scenes of her upbringing, we completely understand her difficulty with engaging. She was never taught how to love or embrace others, but her fear of the world in general remains a bit hard to grasp.  The colorful world of Montmartre where she lives a quiet happy life and works in a pretty cafe, as created here, doesn’t seem to hold much danger to the charming Amélie. She manages to throw herself out there, happily. Her coworkers, Suzanne, the café’s owner and a former circus performer (an underused Harriett D. Foy), Georgette, a nervous hypochondriac waitress (Alyse Alan Louis), and Gina, a sexy fire ball (Maria-Christina Oliveras), all seem lovely and sweet.  The two waitresses really remind me of the two co-workers over at Waitress the musical from pop singer, Sara Bareilles. They are similar types and carry complimentary scenarios, although I think the ladies at that pie shop are given some better ingredients to work with than here in this French cafe. These three cafe ladies do get the opportunity to perform one of my favorite songs in Amélie, the oddly titled but fun and engaging, “A Better Haircut”. Some of Amélie‘s regular customers floating around the cafe are Gina’s ex-boyfriend, the obsessive Joseph (a fun Paul Whitty), Hipolito, a desperate poet (a sweet Randy Blair), and Philomene, a sexy air hostess (Cimmet, playing double duty). The bunch of misfits that fill out the eccentric but family-like atmosphere of her work place all have something that sits unfulfilled in their lives.  They all are in need of some help, but there is no danger here in this pretty French neighborhood that is stopping them, other than the internal fear. And here is where the problem lies in Amélie.
Amélie, Phillipa Soo
Where is the drive and the impulse for this story to move forward? Without fear or danger lurking in the shadows of her outside world, her isolation seems a strange blend of psychological with a dash of the whimsical, and the push for resolution too abstract and complicated (at least to this psychotherapist) to easily happen because of a box, a book, and a boy. The absolutely wonderful Tony Sheldon (Priscilla Queen of the Desert), playing the housebound neighbor and painter has reason to be frightened by the world outside his door.  Everything outside could break him, literally, and because of his own limitations, we completely understand why he tries valiantly to help Amélie jump out into the emotionally connecting world that awaits her.  But what keeps her so afraid? It can’t be that sweet natured oddball that she keeps encountering at the train station.  Nino, played with imperfect perfection by Adam Chanler-Berat (Peter and the Starcatcher, Next to Normal) is naturally the young man who will convince her to step out into the sun, although she doesn’t exactly seem in the shadows most of the time. I loved seeing this talented man as the romantic lead in this show; he’s a natural in the part.  Their romance is wrapped in magical charm and effervescent quirkiness revolving around, avoidance, a mysterious photo booth, and its many discarded images all compiled in a journal.  It’s cute and sweet, but here we go again.
Amélie is definitely those three adjectives, in abundance.  It is filled with funny little gems, like Nino’s coworker (Louis again) and Fluffy the goldfish (Whitty), but also some odd and cringe worthy performances, like the Rock Star (Blair) and his horrible ode to Princess Diana and Amélie, and the silly “Three Figs“.  It’s a shame, as the talent is all there, each and everyone working and giving us gold. The music, lyrics, and book all could be described by those same three previously mentioned adjectives, generally speaking, but the songs and the storyline are too sweet for their own good, blending together in a nice but slightly dull affair. Director Pam MacKinnon forgot to give us some kick to this tale, relying too heavily on Soo’s fantastic gifts, and the world’s connection to the film, Amélie. The show ends on a high note, with the lovely ode to a fearless future, “Where Do We Go From Here?” but I think I knew the answer to that already. I prefer the naturally sweet Waitress pies over at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre if I need to feed my sweet tooth. It may not be Paris, but at least over there the ride has drive.
So for more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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