New York City Theater
Walter Kerr Theater
Take a whimsical, charming film like “Amélie” and turn it into a still whimsical yet distancing and sluggish new Broadway musical. Despite having as its title character the appealing, golden-voiced Phillipa Soo, fresh off her Tony nomination for “Hamilton,” the show seems to have lost its way.
The movie, which made a star of Audrey Tatou, was saturated with a French sensibility, whereas the stage transformation takes its cue from the Zeno paradox that we can never catch up to something that has a head start. That conundrum is translated here as “we always remain alone, never touching,” which has a curiously isolating effect.
The home-schooled Amélie has sparse contact with others. Physically, she may have a diseased heart; emotionally, her heart is gracious and giving.
Inspired by the good deeds of Lady Diana, whose fatal accident happens during the course of the show, Amélie is a modern Lady Bountiful. Anonymously, she bestows gifts, acts as matchmaker and returns lost belongings.
Which is how she meets the man who will become the love of her life. He’s Nino, a collector of discarded photo booth pictures. Finding the album he’s lost, Amélie, with the help of a small chorus of bystanders, returns it to him. (He works in a porn shop, the evening’s one opportunity for a bit of – unrealized -- wickedness.) Romance blossoms, the chorus is happy and the audience, after 110 intermissionless minutes, gets to go home.
Most of this is told with very little punch. What should be a touching fable of a misfit who finds her inner self by reaching out, a waif whose naïvete brings joy to others, is a vague show that goes round and round, round and round, unsure where to land.
To its advantage, “Amélie” avoids cloyness as much as possible and its score, though repetitious, has some pleasant tunes, such as “Where Do We Go From Here?” Then again, one number is titled “There’s No Place Like Gnome.”
Under Pam MacKinnon strained direction, Adam Chanler-Berat is a bland co-star as Nino, but Tony nominees Manoel Felciano as Amélie’s pre-occupied father and Tony Sheldon as a benevolent artist lend yeoman support to the lovely, angelic Soo.
With a book by Craig Lucas and music by Daniel Messé, who co-wrote the lyrics with Nathan Tysen, “Amélie” is harmless but inert, though Peter Nigrini’s projections and David Zinn’s scenic and costume designs are droll. Credit whoever had to fabricate alligator, horse and goldfish headgear for actors, as well as a human stalk of rhubarb. It’s that kind of show.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 9, 2017