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.
By Karen Isaacs
I finally got to see the revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance now at the Golden Theater through Feb. 22. It was worth the wait.
Let’s start by aknowledging that Albee is a brilliant playwright. His work is layered with ideas and emotions. Every good production of one of his plays causes me to think about it in different ways and consider new ideas.
This production does just that. I’ve seen A Delicate Balance before in fine productions. But once again I was thinking about these characters and looking at some of them very differently than I had before. For that praise must be given director Pam MacKinnon.
If you have not seen the show, it opens in a definitely well-to-do living room in suburban Philadelphia. We meet Agnes (Glenn Close) and Tobias (John Lithgow) — a long married couple. You quickly realize that Agnes makes the decisions and keeps everything under control even her emotions, while Tobias seems to have abdicated all involvement. We learn that her sister, Claire (Lindsay Duncan) is living with them and is an alcoholic. We also learn that their daughter, Julia (Martha Plimpton) has been through several marriages each time returning home and the pattern seems about to repeat itself. But what upsets the delicate balance of this family is the sudden and unexpected arrival of their longtime friends, Edna (Clare Higgins) and Harry (Bob Balaban). They have inexplicably been affected by “the terrors” and intend to move in with Agnes and Tobias.
Over the course of the weekend, these six people tell some truths and some lies, display hidden agendas all of which cause them to confront some aspect of their choices and the lives they live. Has the “delicate balance” been upset? Will it return to the equilibrium previously established? Albee does not provide answers. That is left up to each of us.
This production is a blessed with a fine cast who is able to dive beneath the surface and subtly show us and hint at the emotions roiling beneath the surface.
We have the three more restrained characters: Tobias who is either extremely passive or depressed or has just given up. Agnes is an example of the upper class WASP who buries emotion and does what is expected to keep things running smoothly with minimal outward conflict. And even Harry seems intent on keeping his emotions in check.
But the other three women more than make up for the hidden emotions and oblique language of the those. Claire proudly declares she is not an alcoholic but a drunk. Julia seems entitled to come home and reclaim her old room whenever a marriage fails. Edna acts as though the house is hers and Julia her daughter and that obligates her to tell her what she really thinks.
So what is it all about? You can come to your own conclusions — are “the terrors” the fear of growing old or being alone? Is there a hidden dynamic between Julia and Agnes that leads to the repeated failed marriages? Is Claire the alter ego of Agnes — what Agnes would like to be if she could “let go”?
Many other interpretations and ideas emerge as you think about this fascinating play. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it is just about an upper class WASP family. It is not.
All of the performers are fine. Each actor has found a unique aspect of their characters. Julia is perhaps the least likable character — a 30+ woman who feels as entitled as a teenager and as demanding. Plimpton captures that completely. Claire as portrayed by Lindsay Duncan likes to “stir the pot” and annoy her sister. It is perhaps indicative of Tobias’ passive-aggressive stance that he keeps replenishing her drinks.
I’ve never seen an Edna played as aggressively as Clare Higgins does. This is an Edna who is smug, angry and tactless. Higgins is not afraid to be unlikeable.
Glenn Close gives us an Agnes who you see figuratively biting her tongue rather than respond to Edna. She is a woman who feels both put upon and yet proud of the way she has kept everything in place and running smoothly.
Harry is perhaps the most underwritten character. We never really get a handle on him, but he too seems, as played by Balaban, to be unable to stand up to his wife.
Lithgow as Tobias brings his usual touch of humanity to a role that could be seen as passive. You sense a deep melancholy in him — has retirement been that unsatisfying or has his entire life been a disappointment? There is some reference to a son who died years ago, but we never learn how he died or at what age. At one point Agnes hints that Tobias may feel guilty about his death, but we learn no other details.
As the curtain was coming down, Lithgow did a small bit of stage business that was probably missed by most of the audience. But to me it reflected the character and Lithgow’s brilliance. Tobias is sitting in his arm chair after Edna and Harry have left and Julia and Claire have gone upstairs. Agnes comes over and puts her hand on his shoulder. As the curtain is descending, Tobias reaches up and puts his hand on hers.
Santa Loquasto has given a sense of place that helps ground the play as do the costumes of Ann Roth and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt.
If you enjoy intellectually interesting plays, A Delicate Balance will keep you talking for days.
A Delicate Balance is at the Golden Theater on W. 45th Street through Feb. 22. For tickets visit telecharge.