By Karen Isaacs
Charming is a word that can sometimes be used to damn something with faint praise.
Amélie, the new musical based on the successful French film, is — there is no other way of putting it — charming. Not in a cloying way, but with a sweet innocence.
The movie — which was released in 2001, told the story of a young waitress who goes about helping and doing good deeds for others. Her goal is to bring happiness to others and with her imagination and personality she not only succeeds but finds love herself. It became a worldwide hit and was nominated for a number of Oscars, yet audience reactions were mixed. Some loved it for its sweetness and charm (there’s that word again) while others hated it for its simplicity.
The new musical was adapted by Craig Lucas (book), Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messe (lyrics) and music by Daniel Messe. Messe is the founder of the musical group Hem and Tyson wrote the lyrics for the recent Broadway show Tuck Everlasting.
The show also tries to maintain a Gallic sensibility.
The problem with Amélie is that nothing really happens. I never saw the film, so I can’t say if the musical adaptation is the problem. But there is no conflict, no problems, not even any deep-seated yearnings by Amélie. She seems like a pleasant young lady with an active imagination and the soul of a Girl Scout.
That and the eccentric characters that habituate the Montmartre café where she works are not enough to fill two hours of entertainment.
Perhaps if the show featured outstanding music, or innovative music, or if dance had played a major role, the show might have been better.
You can’t fault the performers. Phillipa Soo, who won acclaim in Hamilton and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) has a lovely singing voice. Unfortunately she has been saddled with a character that needs a large dose of charisma to keep our attention. She just doesn’t radiate star power.
With the exception of Adam Chanler-Berat who plays Nino, the love interest and Maria-Christina Oliveras who plays a fellow waitress, all the other performers play multiple roles. Too many of these are brief cameos that leave little room for character development; the blind beggar, the rock star, and more.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the musical is Dufayel played by Tony Sheldon. Dufayel is a painter whose studio Amélie can see from her room. He paints over and over again a replica of Renoir’s Luncheon at the Boating Party, but he is never satisfied with the girl drinking a glass of water.
In some way Amélie touches everyone’s life, even his. But it is all so gently done that the show lacks drive.
What is good about the show? First of all, the cast is talents and achieves as much possible from the material. Tony Sheldon adds an acerbic bite to his portrayal of Dufayel. Adam Chanler-Berat is earnest as Nino, the love interest. But it is telling that a few hours after leaving the theater it is difficult to remember details of the characters, the performances or the songs. They have all faded away.
Pam MacKinnon has directed this and has tried to maintain some Gallic sensibility but even that seems lost. The scenic and costume design by David Zinn is serviceable as if the lighting and sound. Puppets – including a garden gnome – are well designed by Amanda Villalobos. But just the inclusion of the puppets seems like a bit of misplaced whimsy.
As I was watching the show, I recalled another show, Amour, that was big on French charm and had a plot that seemed to defy reality. But that show had a some conflict and sadness in it.
Amélie is a show where the biggest question is why does someone collect photos discarded from those substation photo booths, and who is the man in multiple photos that have discarded all over the city.
Amélie is at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 19 W. 48th Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.