Much like its titular heroine, the new musical “Amelie” can’t seem to make up its mind about anything. Is Amelie (Phillipa Soo) merely an ordinary introvert or is she so severely damaged by her isolated childhood (explained in an overlong backstory by librettist Craig Lucas that opens the show) that she is literally unable to connect with another human being? Are we truly in the City of Lights, as evidenced by David Zinn’s clever sets, Peter Negrini’s superb projections, and an array of overwhelmingly whimsical props, or could we be in Cleveland, given the extremely American-sounding score by Daniel Messe and Nathan Tysen.
More importantly, is this show a simple, sweet-natured, sure-to-have-a-happy-ending love story or are we watching a unnecessarily complex, destined-to-be-doomed romance between Amelie and the equally quirky Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat)? The only thing that is crystal clear for most of “Amelie” is that lacks any consistency of tone or vision, a rather surprising omission considering the considerable skills of director Pam MacKinnon.
What the show fortunately does have is the perfect actress in the role of Amelie. As she displayed as Eliza in “Hamilton,” Soo possesses a rare combination of intelligence, intensity and basic likeability that makes her compulsively watchable no matter the circumstances. Whether quietly delivering a box she found in her apartment to its rightful owner or leading Nino on a ridiculously wild chase around Paris in order to return his beloved book, Soo is always the center of attention.
She also possesses a strong yet gorgeous voice, one that does full justice to some of the score’s better songs, such as “Halfway” and “The Girl with the Glass,” a lovely duet with her neighbor, a stuck-at-home artist named Dufayel (beautifully portrayed by the great Tony Sheldon), who keeps trying to re-paint Renoir’s “The Boating Party Lunch” to no avail.
While Soo and Sheldon shine whenever they can, Chanler-Berat isn’t so fortunate. For whatever reason (the 100-minute running time, perhaps?) Nino is far more underdeveloped than even the photographs he collects. If it wasn’t for his big mid-show number, “When the Booth Goes Bright” (which the actor delivers with great passion), Nino might be a complete cipher. As a result, many people in the audience might not even care about the outcome of this offbeat romance.
The show’s supporting cast is also stocked with top-notch performers, but few really get the opportunity to make much of an impression. For example, Manoel Felciano is sadly underused as Amelie’s cold-as-ice father (a doctor who can’t stand to touch people) and the wonderful Harriett D. Foy, as café owner Suzanne, only gets to briefly beguile us during “A Better Haircut,” a terrific trio that belongs much earlier in the show. Only Randy Blair literally and figuratively dazzles us as an Elton John-like rock star who serenades Amelie during an odd dream sequence set off by the news of Princess Diana’s death.
Oh, yes, the gnome is still here, and it still travels by plane around the world, although all that now amounts to a few 30-second bits. But while you would expect “Amelie” would make even a non-Francophile long to board the next flight to Paris, there’s a good chance you’ll be dreaming of jetting to Maui instead. As for me, wherever Soo goes next, I’ll be following her.
By Brian Scott Lipton
Visit the Site
Phillipa Soo, Adam Chanler-Berat, David Andino, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, Alison Cimmet, Savvy Crawford, Manoel Felciano, Harriett D. Foy, Alyse Alan Louis, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Tony Sheldon, Paul Whitty
Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 3/9/2017
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036