By Lisa Lyons
Amalie, the new musical based on the film of the same name, is like a macaron – deliciously light with a sweet filling. When the show premiered last year at Berkeley Rep, it was still finding its soft center. The book is by Craig Lucas, award-winning playwright (Prelude to a Kiss) with music by Daniel Messe and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messe. But with the addition of “Hamilton” leading lady Philippa Soo as the gamine star, along with a strong ensemble cast directed by Pam McKinnon, this current production at the Ahmanson is now heading for a Broadway engagement in Spring 2017.
Will audiences there be as taken with this whimsical tale of a shy girl who discovers her path in life is to lead others to happiness? If the opening-night audience at the Ahmanson is any indication, the show should have charmed the pantaloons off Broadway theatre-goers.
The show calls to mind the musical “Matilda” in its use of colorful sets, eccentric costumes and exaggerated characters, and also includes a delightfully sassy little girl (Savvy Crawford) as the young Amelie, who re-appears to converse with her older self at key moments in the show.
For those who may have forgotten the plot of the 2001 film, which made a star of Audrey Tatou, Amelie is an only child born to a detached physician father (played by Manoel Felciano) and a schoolteacher mother (played by Alison Cimmet) who are unprepared to deal with this imaginative and gifted daughter. Papa only touches Amelie during her annual physical exam and when her heart races with excitement, he concludes she has a heart condition and must be closely monitored. They are so protective that she ends up home schooled and grows up unable to form deep emotional connections to others. Even her pet goldfish Fluffy (Paul Whitty) must be given up for her health’s sake.
After her devout mother’s untimely and ironic death, and her father’s retreat to the serenity of his garden and its denizens, Amelie learns to take care of herself and eventually moves to the big city: Paris. She finds a small apartment with an eccentric retired painter (Tony Sheldon) and soon finds work at a local café owned by ex-circus artist Suzanne (Harriet D. Foy), where she listens and learns about the longings of her co-workers and others; it is also there she discovers her true calling in life – to bring happy endings to the people she meets.
A chance encounter with Nino (an appealing Adam Chanler-Berat) at a metro station photo booth affects her in a most personal way – she is instantly smitten with this young man whose hobby is collecting discarded photos from the booth and turning them into collages. Despite the meet cute, the path to love is not smooth; it takes the good part of the 90-minute show to finally give these two soul mates their own happy ending.
The talented supporting actors play multiple roles and kudos to each of them for creating unforgettable characters. The ensemble is completed by David Andino, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, and Maria-Christina Oliveras.
The technical wizardry involved is so inventive that it almost proved distracting to some audience members, who spent so much time trying to figure out “how they did that,” often missing the action on stage. Bringing the magic to glorious Technicolor life are scenic and costume designer David Zinn, co-lighting design by Jane Cox and Mark Barton, sound design by Kai Harada, wig design by Charles G. LaPointe and production design by Peter Nigrini.
The live orchestra sounds great under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby, and the fast-paced and amusing musical numbers are staged and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton.
One inherent problem with the show is that the main character of Amelie is somewhat of a cipher. Things happen to her but we never really understand her deeper motivations, as she is always the instigator of cascading events. Perhaps one more solo number where Amelie can reveal what lives in the depth of her heart would flesh her out more. Philippa Soo has a lovely soprano voice and a bubbly energy in this star turn; with a little extra push, she could erase all memories of Audrey Tatou’s portrayal and make this Amelie her own.
Amelie is at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until January 15. Come and wish the production “Bon Voyage” on its trip to Broadway.