Where does one go after effectively helping start a revolution in America? To Paris to dream, of course, as leading lady Phillipa Soo (Hamilton’s original Eliza Schuyler) has done in the title role of Amelie, a new musical at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre adapted from the crowd-pleasing 2001 French romantic comedy film. Here, Soo plays the role created with effortless whimsy by Audrey Tautou, and though the show collectively adds up to a wondrous little bauble of innocuous magic, its individual pieces could use a little polish before Amelie’s Broadway dream is realized in April.
Soo, in a role more akin in ingénue vigor to her 2012 debut as a naïve heiress in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 off Broadway, is in fine voice and disposition as Amelie, a private dreamer living a quiet life as a waitress in Paris. Misled by a sheltered childhood (her eccentric parents, played by a shining Alison Cimmet and Manoel Felciano, misinterpret their daughter’s heartbeat to be a warning against overstimulation), Amelie has developed a vibrant imagination-cum-crippling shyness that, as an adult, has made her inquisitive about others’ lives (particularly patrons at the local café) but guarded in her own. It’s only after a chance act of goodwill that Amelie discovers a new personal calling to help strangers find happiness by way of elaborate meddlesome schemes; on this central theme alone, Amelie is a voyeuristic delight, a sweet story of finding love in both personal and practical ways.
Unfortunately, many of Amelie’s complex, wayward plans (e.g. to set up two café customers or restore a widow’s faith in her philandering dead husband) serve one-note characters with whom we never develop real bonds, while her most personal plot — flirtatiously sending a likewise altruistic young man (Adam Chanler-Berat, charming as ever) on a scavenger hunt to discover her identity — feels more overly complicated than romantically rebellious. As a blanket issue with both Soo’s portrayal and director Pam MacKinnon’s take on the tale, Amelie herself doesn’t register as particularly quirky or endearing; she’s more aloof and disconcerting. Her meddling in the lives of others, meant to distract from confronting her own interpersonal void, doesn’t seem to match the weighty meaning her noble epiphany would have you believe. Amelie is purported to be an internal thinker, yet she often feels like the show’s greatest stranger, and the imaginative childhood we see rendered onstage in the show’s playful, figurative “first act” (it runs two hours with no intermission) does not feel as if it belongs to her.
If only Amelie meddled in the music. Composer Daniel Messé and co-lyricist Nathan Tysen have crafted a mostly sung-through show that sounds perfectly pleasant but lacks layers and memorable melodies. Moments after the curtain falls, you’d be hard-pressed to sing even one line from Amelie. The most effective numbers, as they should be, are her wild fantasies, some highlights of which include a globe-trotting garden gnome, the torch song of a flushed goldfish, and a delicious “Candle in the Wind” spoof sung by Elton John (in which Amelie fancies herself Princess Diana). However, even in the latter number, arguably the most inspired adaptive moment in the film’s translation to the stage, the giddy energy of imagination doesn’t reach its maximum potential; it plateaus before true inspiration hits, a tease of a showstopper that never quite does the job.
That’s how Amelie operates overall: Sweet and silly, but safe. Tender, but just on the cusp of touching. Director MacKinnon has proven herself a master of straight drama, and she’s endlessly clever in her swift musical staging here, especially as she paints loving flourishes of theatricality in earlier scenes. Still, MacKinnon doesn’t fully utilize the gift that scenic and costume designer David Zinn has given the production: A powder-blue Parisian wonderland of armories, portraits, and valaises that marks some of the designer’s best work to date — and a stunning slanted playground for a show that’s decidedly performed more upright.
The show, like Amelie herself, seems to be dreaming of a grander life but afraid to take the risk and lean wholly into imagination, making its central lesson about overcoming inhibition difficult to accept when the show itself ultimately doesn’t. As one character remarks, Amelie always looks as if she’s keeping a secret, and it’s true—there’s mischief done and mischief to be had in the future — but it’s vital that Amelie herself figures out what that secret is first. B