Fifteen years after “Amélie” first charmed moviegoers around the world, the achievements of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and writer Guillaume Laurant are still remarkable. A sumptuous modern love story, the film was filled with enough cross-city chasing and dramatic camera movements to make a viewer feel like they’d had a full exercise during the two-hour running time.
In contrast, “Amélie: A New Musical,” which saw its Los Angeles premiere last week, is a relative stroll through Paris that’s still colorful fun without quite the same degree of satisfaction. However, what this stage version lacks in drive, it supplants with a breezy, pared-down version of plot and atmosphere more in line with the tastes of a casual theatergoing American audience.
Craig Lucas’ book sticks fairly close to the film’s basic skeleton: Amélie Poulain, a comfortably single and romantic-at-heart café waitress, makes a fateful discovery in her apartment. Stumbling on the childhood effects of a former tenant, her plan to return those items to their rightful owner sets off a chain of events that lead her to a fanciful courtship with the equally eager Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat).
Though faithful in terms of its setup, some of the early moments of whimsy hint at a theater experience that jettisons the film’s sneaky dark underpinnings. Here, the perilous flight of Amélie’s goldfish from its bowl is brought on by a tug-of-war mishap instead of a suicidal death wish. When Amélie’s mother is fatally pinned under a cathedral jumper, the giant balloon that smothers her plays more like exaggerated slapstick than a cruel ironic twist. This isn’t the product of direct angling towards family-friendliness (some remnants of the film’s naughtier sequences still remain), but the stripped-out cynicism still leaves little for Amelie’s naïveté to butt up against.
But without the benefit of subtle turns to camera for fourth-wall-breaking smiles, Phillipa Soo still manages to embody the vibrant, well-intentioned mischief-maker at the heart of the show. Moving across the stage with rigid determination and occasionally giving way to the freer, fanciful numbers, Soo captures both sides of Amélie’s struggle to both be seen and stay hidden.
Her counterpart as young Amélie, Savvy Crawford, handles some of the show’s more challenging songs with relative ease, bolstering what could have become an ill-advised expansion of Amelie’s childhood. Of the supporting players, Tony Sheldon’s turn as Dufayel, Amélie’s friendly, fragile-boned neighbor strikes the perfect balance between playful and earnest.
Yann Tiersen’s piano-driven film score has been supplanted by songs rooted in casual coffeehouse strumming, courtesy of composer Daniel Messé. Like the rest of the show, that acoustic lounge feel preserves the sweetness, but loses the urgency of what sometimes needs to serve as the deep, emotional foundation for these character’s enduring connections.
The songs, whether it’s Amélie and Dufayel’s lovely tribute to Renoir “The Girl with the Glass” or Amélie and Nino’s respective twirls around the Montmarte streets and canals, are almost all momentum-halting breaks in the action, pauses to help shade the character details the stage adaptation loses by time constraints or the physical distance of the audience.
The light interplay between Amelie and her father in “You Should Come and Visit Me” and a fig-centric encounter at the street market are Messé and Nathan Tysen’s funnier lyrical turns. But in total, these tunes do feel more at home stateside, like they’d be better off setting the scene for fellow romantic-2000s-indie-turned-musical “Waitress.”
Amélie’s story is fueled by a sense of wonder and discovery found within the everyday workings of Parisian city life. Sometimes, the transposing of sequences from screen to stage means a complete shift in perspective. Amélie’s ushering of a blind man through a market and up to a Paris train station is reprised here; instead of being shown the vivid details of what he can’t see, the stage version puts us closer to having to imagine what isn’t there. For a tale that thrives on technicolor, pantomime often seems like a hollow replacement for the magic that we’re meant to believe is unfolding. When the limitations of the stage ask the choreography and blocking to rely heavily on imagined people or actions, the result is something that evokes that wonder rather than truly harnessing it.
It makes sense that “Amélie: The Musical” is presented without an intermission, preserving that consumption of an entire story in one sitting, from lights down to lights up. The surprising thing about this stage adaptation is how little a break would hurt the overall experience. Never an unpleasant experience, it’s still one that has the heft of a feather floating in the wind, however colorful.
“Amélie, A New Musical” plays at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through January 15, 2017.