Once upon a time, French film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet introduced us to Amélie Poulain, a lonely Parisian waitress. Although the film was an intimate coming of age story about a young woman learning to trust others, everything about her journey felt ready-made for the stage—larger than life and twice as colorful. The cast of eccentrics that populated the café where she worked. Her madcap determination to anonymously bring joy to her lonely neighbors. And her tentative cloak-and-dagger courtship with Nino, a loner that like Amélie who sees the world through a fanciful lens.
Fifteen years later Amélie has finally been given the musical theater edit thanks to Pam MacKinnon, writer Craig Lucas, and composers Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen (of Hem). Lighter and often more playful than the source material, (angled set pieces and bright colors—they got ‘em) their adaptation cuts to the heart of Jeunet’s visual feast, creating a surprisingly touching study in human connection and the fears that keep us apart. The poignant take-away message, that one cannot live in a bubble, withstands even the most comedic of elements—among them a dancing gnome off to see the world (with a musical number of his own, naturally), a headstrong goldfish who must be set free, and the death of Amélie’s mother, here played for laughs instead of tears.
The presence of music (think less French accordions, more coffee shop-ready guitars) helps in this regard, as songs give us direct insight into characters’ internal monologues. The only time this comes across as cloying rather than deliberate is during the play’s “Seasons of Love” reminiscent opening, when the cast tumbles through a frame onto a bare stage to sing/narrate the opening visuals of the film version, down to the tablecloth dancing in the wind—a vaguely pandering move aimed exclusively at devotees of the film. (Guilty as charged.)
Of course, when telling a character-driven story it helps having actors who can actually inhabit the complexity of those characters—many which could have easily read as one-dimensional. (Can anyone honestly say they fully understood where Amélie’s parents were coming from in the film version?) With the play clocking in at one hour and forty minutes long without intermission, the cast moves fast—most actors taking on multiple as the titular character plays secular saint across Paris. Stepping into the lead after a run as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in Hamilton, Phillipa Soo easily has the most heavy lifting to do, lest her Amélie fall victim to quirk. Her athletic performance effortlessly capture captures her character’s frustration and wit, but the true highlight of her time on stage comes when she’s paired with her neighbor “The Glass Man” (played by Tony Sheldon). Their tender chemistry feels like the play’s strongest relationship and could have easily carried more of the running time.
What does add run time and overall narrative value is additional scenes exploring Amélie’s isolated childhood. Sure it would have been nice to see Amélie take revenge on the abusive Grocer Collignon (here hinted at but never fully fleshed out) or hear the characters rattle off a laundry list of favorite things. But seeing young Amélie (played by the extraordinary Savvy Crawford) learn that a math theory has proven everyone is always alone provides the much-needed narrative heft to the show’s inevitable happy conclusion. Sweet as the crème brulee, Amélie still manages to crack the character’s shell in a way that feels both believable and uplifting, proving without a hint of cynicism that the world may be nasty and brutish…but it’s better when we’re all in it together.
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Written by: Craig Lucas
Music and lyrics: Daniel Messé, Nathan Tysen
Starring: Adam Chanler-Berat, Tony Sheldon, Alison Cimmet, Heath Calvert, Alyse Alan Louis, Paul Whitty, Manoel Felciano, Harriett D. Foy, Maria-Christina Oliveras, David Andino, Randy Blair, Phillipa Soo, Savvy Crawford, Emily Afton, Jacob Keith Watson.
Laura Studarus is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer. Her French and personality improves after a glass of wine. Follow her on Twitter. twitter.com/laura_studarus