On Sunday, I went to see a pre-Broadway production at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles of Amélie, based on the French film . I enjoyed the film though wasn't one of its wild admirers, so I wasn't sure if I'd go to the stage production. But I'd see a brief video and saw some comments about the "magical stagecraft," and I do like that sort of thing -- when any work uses its medium to the fullest.
I was very glad I went. I thought the show was quite good, and able to retain a great deal of charm, without being cloying. And it was indeed done with excellent stagecraft, under the direction of Pam McKinnon. All the more impressive since her biography (while excellent, including a play I'd seen, Clybourne Park) didn't include any musicals, or for that matter all that much comedy.
The score has music by Daniel Messé who some people by know as the founder of the group, Hem. He collaborated on the lyrics with Nathan Tyse. Not the first thought you'd come to when putting together a musical, but I heard an radio interview with him a few weeks ago where he said he'd always loved theater and had wanted to write a show. And when he was approached about doing a musical, and asked if there was a film he'd want to adapt, he immediately said, Amélie. He explained that he'd already written several songs inspired by the film for the group's albums, and one of them, called "Thin Air" is in the show. Ultimately, the score fits the mood of the evening wonderfully, creating its own sensibility, while not trying just to be "French," but bringing the world to life.
Though it doesn’t really have any particularly stand-out songs that become instantly memorable, that's not a totally fair comment because there are several that are extremely nice -- and almost all the score works well. And that is saying a lot since the show is wall-to-wall songs. It’s not precisely a “sung-through” (all-singing) musical, though close. Probably about 85% sung. The book is by Craig Lucas, who's best known for the play and movie, "Prelude to a Kiss." The story here condenses things a bit, so it’s a little on the surface, but fine.
My biggest quibble is that the motivation of Amélie's character, which comes from her restrictive upbringing that leads into her being so reclusive and living in a sort of fantasy world, doesn't come through as strong as might be ideal, and only was clear (to me) near the end. She just seemed more "shy" to me than solitary. To a certain degree, that's okay since it's nice to have a sense of discovery when the realization hits. Though I'm not sure if it was necessarily that intentional here because I found myself thinking that (without that focus) it seemed to be a little unfocused at parts. But then, maybe that's me, maybe other people got it clearly all the way through. That said, it wasn't a problem, just something I'd personally have liked a bit sharper, since overall the story flows nicely and with emotion and whimsy.
(It's also worth remembering that this is a pre-Broadway production, and is likely still being worked on. It began life at the Berkeley Repetory, and this is its second production. For instance, I read that in the initial stages, Amélie didn't sing much, since -- as in the movie -- she was fairly silent. But as the show developed, the creators found more of her "voice", literally. She now sings a great deal.)
The thing is, I really don't remember much about the film. As I said, I liked it, though it clearly wasn't memorable to me. What that means, however, is that I was able to come to the stage show fairly fresh, and view it for what it is, not for how it compared to the movie. I suspect that most people who loved the film would quite-enjoy the musical. It has the warmth and charm I recall of the original. I do know that for some, that original was too cloying and the main character too annoying for it, and if one utterly hated the movie then this probably isn't for you. But -- I don't know if that's fully true for everyone who fell into the fingers-on-a-chalkboard category. It definitely is still whimsical and charming, though isn't "precious" but a little more grounded to earth. And the main character (because she sings so much) doesn't have the same elfin quality of a silent waif that bugged so many, as she fantasized her way into people's lives while helping them. But if missing that pixie dust bothers some of its film fans, know that she still flits around with a sweet, provincial innocence. One thing I do remember about the movie is that it was a sort of love-letter to the cinema in its images, sensibility and technique, and this is definitely missing that -- as it has to. However, in its own way it takes that and turns it to the proscenium and becomes instead as much a sort of love letter to the theater, with its affectionate, open and clever use of stagecraft.
The show stars Phillipa Soo who recently got a Tony nomination for her appreance in Hamilton. She's terrific -- sings beautifully and brings out all the charm the character requires. Overall, it's an ensemble piece, in fact, her name isn't above the title or even first among the cast, but just listed with everyone alphabetically. And she doesn't even get a standalone moment in the curtain call. But she's deserving of one. But then, having everyone together for their bows adds to the impact of the evening.
It runs a little under two hours with no intermission, which I think was a good decision not to break things up.
I can't find any good videos of the show yet, so this minute-long trailer of the show's initial run at the Berkeley Repertory will have to suffice. Just know that it doesn't feature Phillipa Soo, but a British actress, Samantha Barks, who came to attention on a TV "reality" show, I'd Do Anything, that auditioned actresses for a West End revival of Oliver!. She came in third, though later got the role of 'Eponine' in the film of Les Miserables. Why the change was made -- whether because of availability or otherwise -- I have no idea. Perhaps its because the demands of the role changed, as noted above. Or even as simple as one of the stars of Hamilton came available. However, the male lead played well by Adam Chanler-Berat is the same, as is the little girl who plays 'Young Amélie' with great exuberance and subtlety, no easy trick, Savvy Crawford. I also notice a few staging changes that have taken place in the new version, most notably having a much-larger garden gnome. (If you see the show, it will be very clear...)
Whatever the reason, here's the original trailer.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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