Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of Amélie (2001), maintains that he sold the rights to the film only to give the money to a charity which sponsors life-saving surgeries for children: he calls the genre of musicals and Broadway in particular the “epitome of mediocrity”, and the musical adaptation of Amélie something which “deeply disgusts” him.
These are strong words, to put it lightly, and hard ones to put aside when it comes to reviewing Craig Lucas’ Amélie The Musical, now debuting in London at The Other Palace after various productions internationally since 2015. Premiering earlier this year at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury and directed by Michael Fentiman, Amélie The Musical shares more with the film than Jeunet would perhaps believe if he were to see it, after swearing not to.
Its colour palette is the same (the company in autumnal colours, russety reds and greens dialed all the way up), and Madeleine Girling’s design exceeds in kitsch charm despite the impossibility of the film’s saturated, paper-yellow tint to everything. Squiggly wrought ironwork adorns two double doors, a photobooth is centre stage, and Amélie darts mainly between the metro and the Montmartre café in which she works.
As the imaginative, insular, charmingly strange and strangely charming Amélie, French-Canadian actor Audrey Brisson is clear-voiced and straight-backed. She smiles less than Audrey Tatou’s Amélie: instead, she regards the idiosyncracies of the Parisians around her with a childlike, intense interest. Her growing affection for Nino (Chris Jared), a weird man himself who likes to collect discarded photobooth strips, is almost impossible for her to manage. Her parents convinced her at an early age of the impossibility and danger of striving for real connection with others, until as an adult, moved by the death of Princess Diana in Paris, she tries her hand at anonymous altruism.
The actor-muso cast make use of two pianos (and a host of other instruments) for accompaniment as well as set for Amélie to stand and be whizzed about upon. The music, by Daniel Messé, thrums with strings and cellos and flute. It’s that something is stirring music: apart from a surprise Elton John tribute (Caolan McCarthy in a strong impression) it doesn’t really stay with me. Despite that Yann Tiersen’s much-lauded soundtrack for the film is off bounds and that Jeunet deemed the musical’s score as “a disaster”, it builds a picture of Amélie’s world well.
Her apartment, fabulously, is a tiny capsule hidden high up, behind the Metro’s large clock face. To be within its close red walls, Amélie takes hold of a lampshade and is hoisted up in seconds: thankfully, Brisson is known for her work with Cirque du Soleil. It’s irresistibly a little Mary Poppins, but always pleasing – a literal flight of fancy.
There’s some enjoyably creepy puppetry, a comment on the jealous tendencies of Samuel Morgan Grahame’s character Joseph in song by café staff Georgette (Faoileann Cunningham) and Gina (Sophie Crawford), and some in-and-out French accents. Amélie’s brief stint helping a blind beggar (given no other name, played by Josh Sneesby) has a slightly breezily condescending tone which could do with some updating. She helps people simply, and they remain simple characters: it’s Amélie’s character which is complicated beyond being simply funny and touching. She’s not unlike a much sunnier version of the heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, trying to navigate her own deeply hurt emotional landscape, withdrawn and odd.
The musical can’t have Amélie’s habit of direct address and answering of the narrator as in the film, where her fourth wall-breaking seemed part of her singularity. Narration is shared between Brisson and the rest of the cast instead, and attention is necessarily focused on her onstage in a different way than the repeated close-ups of Tatou’s face. Brisson’s Amélie is at the centre of all these people onstage, pointed towards her or helping her move, and it’s harder to communicate loneliness this way. Perhaps it’s always going to be difficult to convey isolation when a neighbour of yours with bones as fragile as glass (Johnson Willis) is singing lovingly into your face.
The musical delivers the unreal cuteness of the film’s Paris, unparalleled in picturesque nostalgia – it’s romantic, of course. It’s disappointing that the racial homogeneity Amélie drew criticism for in back in 2001 has been reproduced faithfully too; this overwhelmingly white Paris doesn’t exist now, didn’t then, and indeed never did. Jeunet is dismissive of the idea of a sequel film to Amélie; “Paris is ugly now,” he says, a mess of construction sites. But Paris never was the postcard perfect, saccharine vision Jeunet had for Amélie to dream in, and we can perhaps be sceptical of that vision as well as the impulse to recreate it. While Amélie The Musical doesn’t enchant me, Jeunet’s judgements in general can be taken with a rather large pinch of salt.
Amélie The Musical is on at The Other Palace Theatre until 1st February. More info and tickets here.