Based on the charming, visually sumptuous 2001 French movie starring Audrey Tautou, the new musical Amélie tries too hard to be whimsically endearing. As a result, instead of being simply cute, it ends up being cutesy. But there’s no denying the talent and appeal of its star, Phillipa Soo. She gets to sing the best songs in the show, and her voice sounds as lovely and crystal clear as it did in Hamilton.
We first meet Amélie as a girl (Savvy Crawford) living with her parents in a small French town. In one scene she’s handed a goldfish bowl. Next thing you know, an actor jumps onstage with a goldfish on his head. And somehow it isn’t surprising that his name is Fluffy, or that he is her best friend.
Throughout the show the actors are busy miming, operating puppets, moving sets—not to mention singing and dancing as various characters. They all have good moments, but sometimes the inventiveness feels forced.
First staged in Los Angeles and Berkeley, Amélie seems to have been influenced by the long-running Peter and the Starcatcher, which used creative staging to make audiences use their imaginations. Amélie aims to work the same kind of theatrical magic but with less success.
When Amélie is grown up and has moved to Paris, Soo assumes the role. She gets a job at a typical café in Montmartre, the Two Windmills, where “she lives quietly among her coworkers and loudly in her imagination.”
Amélie is a bit of a hermit, happily observing the colorful world around her. After she hears that Princess Diana has died, she starts doing random kind things for people. She does them anonymously and enjoys being an enigma. When she meets the quirky, gentle Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), we know immediately that they’re crazy about each other. (To spell it out, the other actors open up suitcases with big hearts inside.)
Because Amélie is so shy, it takes her and Nino a while actually to meet. Eventually Amelie gets out of her head long enough to connect with her smitten swain. When they sing a duet, Soo and Chanler-Berat sound great together. Chanler-Berat (who originated the role of Peter in Starcatcher) is a natural for the role.
Unfortunately, the music by Daniel Messé and the lyrics by him and Nathan Tysen aren’t consistently memorable. Soo has the prettiest songs; most of the ensemble numbers are less tuneful.
Craig Lucas wrote the book, which has plenty of fantastical elements as well as a surfeit of silly shtick. Director Pam MacKinnon keeps the action flowing as the actors switch characters and costumes and the scenery changes. The breathless staging captures some of the spirit of the movie but lacks its visual flair.
Audiences with a strong taste for whimsy may find Amélie charming, and pretty much anyone will enjoy hearing Soo’s voice again. Others, I’m afraid, may overdose on all the sweetness.
Amélie runs through October 1 at the Walter Kerr Theater, 218 West 48th Street, New York, NY 10036. Get tickets here.