It’s strange to realize that it’s been more than 15 years since Amélie, that force majeure of French whimsy, first stormed international screens — making an instant icon of actress Audrey Tatou, scooping up fistfuls of shiny prizes, and spurring a sudden surge in insouciantly cropped brunette bobs.
Not everyone has supported bringing its distinctly Gallic magic to an American stage; most notably the film’s creator, Jean Pierre Jeunet. (He called Broadway “the very incarnation of tackiness” and resisted selling the rights for a decade before agreeing to donate the full fee to a children’s charity.) There’s probably nothing about this unabashedly crowd-pleasing production that will make him come around, though he may not have much company: The show is a quirky-sweet creampuff that breezily imports much of the movie’s off-kilter charm, even as it loses a little of its original je ne sais quoi (and approximately 15 minutes of runtime.)
Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) has also landed something like a sure thing in her leading lady; at 26, Phillipa Soo has already originated two phenomenally successful roles: Eliza (a.k.a. the main Mrs.) in Hamilton, and the titular Russian ingénue in Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812. Like its cinematic namesake, her Amelie is introduced first as a little girl (played here by the engaging Savvy Crawford). Born to a frazzled neurotic of a mother (Alison Cimmet) and an emotionally distant physician father who mistakenly diagnoses her with a heart condition (it’s only pounding with the excitement of her monthly checkup, which is as close as he comes to showing his daughter physical affection), she’s a sad, isolated child, strictly homeschooled and left to fill the long empty hours with her overactive imagination.
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Years later — though it takes only a few minutes in show time — she’s still not fully socialized, but life has become a little sweeter: Now a waitress in a Montmartre cafe, she fits cozily enough into the neighborhood’s collection of misfit toys, which includes a proprietress who still carries a limp from her tragic past as a trapeze artist (Harriet D. Foy); a sneezy hypochondriac (Alyse Alan Louis); a failed, flailing novelist (Randy Blair); and a shut-in painter with bones so fragile they call him the Glass Man (Tony Sheldon).
The plot’s unlikely impetus arrives with the death of Princess Diana, whose gift for noble do-gooding moves Amelie to pursue loopy, anonymous acts of kindness — like reuniting an old neighbor with his boyhood treasure box or secretly engineering affairs between lovelorn cafe patrons. And she finds her own obstacle-laden path to romance, naturally, with another sensitive idiosyncratic soul, a photobooth-haunting artist-slash-part-time-porn-store-clerk named Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat, pleasant but a little bit of a blank slate).
The book by Craig Lucas (An American in Paris, Light in the Piazza), and music (by Daniel Messe, with lyrics cowritten by Nathan Tysen) is as light-footed and inventive as the bright, homespun sets and costumes by David Zinn (Fun Home). And MacKinnon keeps it all moving along briskly, winnowing down the movie’s sprawl to stage-size and making room for fresh flights of fancy, like a fantastically absurd duet with little Amelie’s pet goldfish Fluffy (slyly anthropomorphized by Paul Whitty) and a wild sequence with an Elton-like rock star (Blair again, having the glitter-gunned time of his life) belting out the glam-rock stomper “Goodbye, Amelie,” clearly inspired by John’s own “Candle in the Wind” tribute to Lady Di.
If any one thing feels lost in the transfer from screen to stage, it’s the pathos that pinned the film’s whimsy to steadier ground; an underlying sense of the real, universal pain sprung from lonely lives and dreams deferred. Soo has a lot to carry, and she’s a winsome, faultlessly graceful performer—though the script strips her of nearly all of Tatou’s more subversive impulses, making her a sort of girlish, guileless saint. Painting Amelie in a broader and sunnier palette doesn’t leave much space for finer shading, but there’s still a lot of pure primary-color joy in its wholehearted embrace of la vie en rose. B+