Living life to the fullest requires a release, a letting go, and a willingness to fail. Sadly, intelligence can sometimes work against someone’s ability to courageously stir and make waves out of the cauldron of life. One can become rendered useless by being too analytical, logical, and sensible when the right choice might be to defy one’s comfort zone.
This resignation, even manifested speciously as an empowered freedom in the form of artistic avocation, is what suspensefully binds the principal characters in “Amélie, A New Musical,” based on the 2001 film starring Audrey Tautou. The production at the Ahmanson Theatre, which stars “Hamilton” alum Phillipa Soo in the title role, is a continuation of the show’s debut at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2015. With book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messé, and directed by Pam MacKinnon, it is a gorgeous display of whimsical wonderment, and can also only be seen until January 15th before moving to Broadway in March 2017.
Certainly, to have first dibs at a show of this magnitude is a big win for the L.A. theatre community, which has been taken on a briskly beautiful 110-minute odyssey through an idiosyncratic interlacing of a euphoria that demands one to anxiously await the joy-to-heaven resolution.
At the center of the extraordinary proceedings is the quirky, but withdrawn, Amélie. We learn of her tragically unusual, albeit hysterical, upbringing as a child, and how she was cloistered to absurd lengths by her parents Raphael and Amandine (played with outlandish charm by Alison Cimmet and Manoel Felciano, respectively), who allowed their daughter to only keep the company of a fish named “Fluffy” (personified with gut-busting hilarity by Paul Whitty). Of course, the rampant ridiculousness begets more of the same when Amélie’s mother dies tragically via the accidental crushing by a plummeting man who leaps to his suicide. This prompts Amélie’s father to dedicate a gnome garden to better remember his deceased wife, who passionately hated the red-hatted elves.
Savvy Crawford, who portrays young Amélie and is a precocious natural on stage, is an audience favorite as the imaginative girl who becomes an unconventional product of her bizarre surroundings. When Crawford zestfully, but with a tone that threatens defeat, sings “World’s Best Friend” and “World’s Best Mom,” we understand where the seeds of her strangeness were sprouted and why it takes so long for her to finally climb the proverbial beanstalk to her personal salvation. And, thus overcoming the crutch of Zeno’s Paradox — which states that there is nothing to be gained from venturing when the halfway point to a destination yields halfway points in perpetuity — is the last step Amélie must take to assume personal responsibility for her own happiness.
As the grown-up Amélie, a waitress at the Café des 2 Moulins, Soo exquisitely affects the mentality of an arrested would-be-princess at heart who daydreams about being memorialized by an angelic choir backing up a rip-riffing Elton John clad in a jumpsuit even too ostentatious for Elvis (John is played to perfection by Randy Blair in one of the most-crowd pleasing scenes in the musical).
After all, there is enough reality to feed Amélie’s commitment to a life purpose of vicariously living through the change she has personally effected for others after she solves the lock box mystery and witnesses the joy on the face of its recipient, Bretodeaux (Manoel Felciano). Soo emotes an irresistible elation through Amélie’s altruism in helping the Blind Beggar (David Andino) see with descriptive imagery; in making it possible for her co-workers/friends Georgette and Gina (Alyse Alan Louis and Maria-Christina Oliveras) to meet a mate or overcome past grief in order to do so; and by even metaphorically freeing the gnome (an uproarious bit also by Andino) that her father obsesses over so that he, too, can live again.
Perhaps the most heartwarming turnaround of a character in Amélie’s proximity happens to writer, Hipolito (Randy Blair), who finally gets the public recognition he deserves. The bliss that Blair conveys through his character upon reading one of his aphorisms “spray-painted” on a wall by Amélie is terrifically genuine and an interesting contrast to his outrageously lively Elton John. But the most compelling transformation is that of Amélie herself, who, upon the urging of an elderly man and painter, Dufayel (played with wise conviction by Tony Sheldon), repeatedly tries to return a scrapbook of photo-booth-taken pictures on the premise of finding love with its collector, a unique gentleman named Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat).
There are particularly intriguing similarities between Nino, Dufayel, and Amélie. All three have made a habit out of living through the eyes of others, as opposed to their own. With Nino, it’s his obsession with the accounts he gathers from still images; with Amélie, it’s the thrill of observing moving images and real people unfold from afar; and with Dufayel, it’s his insistence on adopting a part of Renoir’s legacy as his own (by painting “Luncheon of the Boating Party” every year for 20 years). The one difference setting apart Dufayel, though, is that his cognizance of this acts as a warning to Amélie of the painful outcome she will bring upon herself unless she leads a life with some risk. Suffice it to say, Sheldon, who uses his character’s restrictions to ensure that each of his individually spoken words methodically impacts the observer, is heartbreakingly endearing as the grandfather-like figure seemingly made of glass.
Dufayel, nonetheless, isn’t the only one rooting for Amélie and Nino to finally meet and flourish as romantic partners; the entire audience is. The cat-and-mouse game between the two protagonists is gripping in the manner it tantalizes, teases, and foreshadows. We want Amélie to stop being avoidant and ultimately stay at the end of the breadcrumbs she has meticulously laid out for Nino. In one memorable scene, Soo disarmingly pretends to be an unassuming, but all-too conspicuous nun, where she drops off Nino’s photo book, but avoids meeting him inside the sex shop where he works. Whereas most actors would teeter on the brink of cringeworthy awkwardness with such a scene, Soo and Chanler-Berat somehow make their interaction innocently sweet.
In another scene, Nino is to meet Amelie at a carousel, whose whereabouts are being hinted at by blue arrows – held or pointed – by the ensemble. Though with each turn, run up the stairs, and frantic looks over his shoulder, Nino gets closer but further away from Amélie who can’t quite commit to being caught. The tension inherent in this makes their enigmatic phone conversations more adorable, which, again, is underscored by the purity with which Soo and Chanler-Berat get across their personas.
Additionally, besides nailing the nuances of her complicated character, Soo sings evocative songs like “Halfway to Go,” “Trail of Breadcrumbs” and “Nino is Late/How to Tell Time” effortlessly and expectantly with nary a strain on her face, almost as a desire to at long last prove her character’s self-fulfilling prophecy of solitude wrong. Chanler-Berat, likewise, shines as an introverted man who sings in a hopeful tone (e.g., “Where We Go From Here”) who is bound by a determination to make his amorous wish come true.
Undoubtedly, a key reason for the show’s success is Daniel Messé’s music (with lyrics by him and Nathan Tysen) — which is a medley of exuberance, mirth, buoyancy, and peculiarity that enhances the characters and their motivations. Messé nicely balances the line between earnestness and comic relief – an effective example of which is “Figs” sung by Lucien (Heath Calvert). It is a spastic cacophony of enthusiastic expressiveness that musical director Kimberly Grigsby interprets expertly, giving Calvert the outlet to succeed riotously and elevate the musical even more.
This is also a production that boasts some of the most stunning scenery (David Zinn), sets, staging (Sam Pinkleton), props, and puppetry (Amanda Villalobos) anyone will ever experience. From a restaurant sign, to a neon woman, a wall of artwork, and a row of clocks, there is no telling what else is going to descend from the stage ceiling. This is combined with the technological prowess of today, specifically the use of laser projections (Peter Nigrini) that impressively draws images/phrases on moving canvasses, and illuminates various set pieces using the same prop.
Conclusively, when Nino meets Amélie at her door, and the two stand there in poetic silence, taking turns kissing each other gently before a rousing lip kiss, our spirits fly and our smiles widen. We are comforted with the knowledge that we’ve been ever so moved by a curious musical that culminates with its two main characters together, who can finally live contentedly for not only each other, but for themselves.
For more information about “Amélie, A New Musical” and future shows at the Ahmanson Theatre, please visit