by Michael Bracken
You know you’re in trouble when ten minutes into a show you’re looking at a man with talking goldfish covering his head, especially when five minutes later you see a nun with the head of a crocodile and find yourself pining for the fish.
Such is the whimsical world of Amélie, the musical based on the 2001 French film of the same name, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, with book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messé, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé.
Young Amélie, played simply and winningly by Savvy Crawford, is a victim of unfortunate parenting. Her father (Manoel Felciano), an army doctor who will touch his daughter only when he’s wearing latex gloves, diagnoses her as having a heart condition. He and her unsympathetic mother (Alison Cimmet) decide she must avoid stimulation, so they home school her and keep her away from other children.
Mom dies, hit by a falling suicidal Belgian tourist outside Notre Dame. So, it’s just young Amélie and her father until grown-up Amélie (Phillipa Soo) arrives, soon living in Paris and working as a waitress at a café, Les Deux Moulins.
While Young Amélie is passively cute – as a fetching eight-year-old in red and black stripes, all she has to do is show up – mature Amélie has to work at it. God knows Soo gives it her all, pert and chipper to a fault. And indeed, it is a fault. How much wide-eyed sweetness can we take?
Amélie doesn’t quite know how to relate to her fellow humans. An opportunity to do good presents itself in the form of a metal box filled with mementos, which she clandestinely returns to its rightful owner and witnesses the joy she’s created. She has found her raison d’être: do good deeds for others.
But do them on the sly. Because of her solitary childhood, Amélie the adult is reclusive, pathologically so. Direct interaction with the beneficiaries of her kindheartedness is out of the question.
Enter Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), an offbeat artist with a day job in a sex shop. In one train station, he and Amélie trip over each other and in another, they see each other from a distance. Their gazes connect but nothing more happens. Then in a Metro station, as Nino rushes to catch his train, he drops his art work, which Amélie retrieves. You can imagine the rest, but you probably can’t imagine the glacial pace at which it plays out.
While her character may be insipid, Soo’s voice is anything but. Clear and soaring, it effortlessly fills the theater with Messé’s songs, most of which are pleasantly diverting. Chanler-Berat, not burdened with the need to be always adorable, is a solid presence in a sea of one-dimensional beings. You can’t help rooting for him to get the girl, and he sure knows how to hold a note.
Harriet D. Foy, as Suzanne, owner of the café where Amélie works, stands out among the supporting players. Like her peers, she has a single defining characteristic, in her case a limp. But there’s more to her than that. The limp is the jumping-off point from which she develops a grounded flesh-and-blood character.
It’s hard to decipher director Pam MacKinnon’s vision for the production. Movement (by choreographer Sam Pinkleton) seems intentionally awkward, and costumes (by David Zinn, who’s also responsible for sets) tend to be unflattering.
The ensemble is as inclusive, in terms of body types, as any you’re likely to see on the musical stage. Short, tall, young, old, skinny, fat: they’re a heterogeneous lot. That’s a wonderful thing for a society, less obviously an asset for a Broadway chorus.
The overall effect is quirky, devoid of charm. Perhaps it’s meant as a counterpoint to Amélie’s sweetness. Perhaps not.
Amélie. Open run at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 West 48th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.Améliebroadway.com 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus