Adapting films into musicals (seemingly a more trendy proposition these days) is nothing new. A quick web search will confirm that no less than 181 movies have been adapted into musicals, and although many of the titles don’t inspire much excitement, there are certainly a handful of hits in the mix. Those that have stood the test of time tend to be either already a musical in cinematic form (The Lion King, for example), or involve some degree of inherent plot-driven “performance,” as in the iconic closing scene of The Full Monty. On the surface then, AmÃ©lie, which opened April 3rd at the Walter Kerr Theatre, seems like an unlikely candidate for theatrical adaptation, which lends it a certain intrigue.
How are they going to go about this?
The 2001 French film, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet with unforgettable music by Yann Tiersen, was intoxicatingly charming. One could argue that this allure was not because of its story (a fairly light romantic comedy coupled with some whimsical stalking), but due to the astonishing visual invention and ideas of its director, along with a perfectly composed cast. Cutting through the whimsy was a visual darkness. The film – as light and airy as it felt to watch – was grounded by its cinematic virtuosity, which created the requisite distance between its look and the potentially cloying central narrative theme of “a pixie dreamer sets out to do good for the world.”
It would make sense, then, for AmÃ©lie‘s adaptation into musical form to focus on the visual design, the atmosphere, and strive to translate that virtuosic, manic, fever-dream quality of the film to the stage. Which is to say, instead of thinking about the project as adapting a movie into a musical, one should reverse the formula and attempt to bend the form of a musical into the twisted esprit of AmÃ©lie.
Unfortunately, the creative team (made up of director Pam MacKinnon, working with a book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel MessÃ©, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and MessÃ©) has chosen the first route, and the resulting production, which super-imposes the AmÃ©lie narrative over a generic contemporary musical structure, struggles to overcome that choice.
While still set in Paris, the music and tone of AmÃ©lie have been distinctly Americanized here. Instead of the memorable Tiersen accordion music, we encounter a twinkly chime and harp-heavy score that rarely offers the performers a chance to do much more than recite plot points coupled with generalized inner desires. It’s workmanlike at best, and one often experiences an uncomfortable tension between the forced whimsy of the narrative and the bland expression of it. What does whimsy sound like? After watching AmÃ©lie, we’re none the wiser.
Also gone is the swirling richness of the cinematic visuals, replaced with an overly bright, Disney-like set design. What stage magic that does exist – there is a requisite number with colorful unfurled umbrellas, for example, and a rather innovative suicide leap from the tower of Notre Dame early on – is consistently undercut by the constant use of unimaginative projected visuals on the back wall of the set.
Take for instance the memorable scene from the movie where AmÃ©lie decides to whisk the blind man that she encounters daily on an impromptu adventure, breathlessly narrating as she guides him at great speed through the streets of Paris. When rendered using digital imagery in the place of innovative physical blocking and design, the scene fails to evoke anything other than vague embarrassment.
The performers find what moments they can to shine. Phillipa Soo, as the title character, inhabits the quirky strangeness of AmÃ©lie without turning her into caricature, and breaks out some delightful dance moves in the most rousing song of the evening, “Goodbye, Amelie.” Randy Blair (who also plays the writer Hipolito) brings down the house in a fantasy Elton John number. If AmÃ©lie finds its way to a longer run, it will be likely due to Ms. Soo’s unforced charisma and appeal, not to mention her ability to draw tween-aged girls in droves, if the show I attended is any indicator.
Her counter-part and love interest Nino (played by Adam Chanler-Berat) is fresh-faced and sports a fine voice, but doesn’t quite match the audience’s expectation of who AmÃ©lie might be interested in, nor is there much chemistry between the two of them. The remainder of the nimble ensemble cast leap into the roles of AmÃ©lie’s assorted cafe co-workers, garden gnomes, Belgian tourists, and the like, but are forced through their paces at such speed that it’s hard to stop and appreciate the individual performances.
When AmÃ©lie meets Nino (on his stomach, reaching for a lost photo underneath a photo-booth), we are informed that they are compatible via the ensemble suddenly appearing and opening suitcases which contain glittery hearts. They create a brief pulse, half-opening and closing the suitcases, and then slamming them shut until the next time that she encounters Nino. That AmÃ©lie might store her heart in a suitcase rather than on her sleeve is an interesting contradiction, and evoked here not by a song but by simple visual flourish – a tidy little bit of stage magic to embody the fanciful.
But these moments of clarity, with form and content coming into a balanced focus, are few and far between. Just as in the story, as AmÃ©lie erratically and irrationally avoids contact with Nino, perhaps fearing that what’s in her heart will not match up to her hopeful dreams, we too are left feeling as though the production has somehow evaded us, fearful that it couldn’t fully fulfill our expectations and hoping we wouldn’t notice.