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Theatre in Review: Amélie (Walter Kerr Theatre)

Phillipa Soo. Photo: Joan Marcus

There's one indisputably great thing about Amélie, and her name is Phillipa. Soo's the name, and surely you don't need an introduction from me; if you didn't catch her way back when as the romance-struck girl from the country in the original production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, chances are you made her acquaintance as the faithful and unexpectedly fierce Eliza Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda's blockbuster. Here, dressed by David Zinn in a red-and-black plaid skirt, a red flowered blouse (that doesn't quite match), and red Peter Pan sweater, the pageboy-bobbed actress evokes the spirit of every cinematic gamine ever to stroll the rue de la Paix, from Audrey Hepburn to Audrey Tautou. As the title character, a mousy little thing who loves to anonymously meddle in the lives of others, she enters, eyes us ever so nervously, and, exuding effortless warmth, neatly wraps us collectively around her little finger. Given a moderately beguiling tune -- in this case, a here-I-am number called "Times are Hard for Dreamers" -- she improbably manages to combine an aspen-leaf shyness with an unstoppable sense of purpose. "It isn't what I have/It's only what I have in store," she sings, and from this vantage point Soo should have nothing but good things coming to her.

At the moment, however, she is the central figure of Amélie, a faux French frolic that consists of nothing but the frothiest conceits and allegedly adorable oddballs, all tethered to a plot so inconsequential that a meringue would weigh it down. A flashback to Amélie's childhood calls up her beloved pet, a goldfish named Fluffy. (If that makes you wince, stop reading now; the script's fancies only get fancier from here on in.) The goldfish is first glimpsed as a little puppet in a bowl, then as the actor Paul Whitty, with an enormous, moving goldfish headdress, poised on roller stakes. Inside Notre Dame Cathedral, an overweight, suicidal Belgian tourist, represented by a giant blowup doll, throws himself off the ledge, landing on Amélie's mother and killing her -- thus proving that even manslaughter can be made too cute. There's an entire number about figs, delivered by a greengrocer; his favorite piece of fruit is named Figaro and he worries about finding him a date. I'll let that one sink in for a second.

The oddball characters keep coming, including the nun who sports a crocodile's head; a guest appearance by Elton John, who shows up to give Amélie a "Candle in the Wind"-style sendoff; and Amélie's father, a doctor who shuns physical contact, his idea of intimacy involving giving his daughter a once-a-month checkup (not that there's anything creepy about that). And I haven't even gotten to the caper in which Amélie steals a garden gnome from her father and slips it to an airline hostess, who takes pictures of it in settings around the world, leading one to wonder if the entire sequence is a product placement effort from your friends at Travelocity.

Yes, I know, the gnome gag is taken from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant's 2001 film, a fluffy crepe overloaded with beurre and sucre; if you didn't care for it, it's a good bet that this isn't the show for you. Craig Lucas' book boils the action down to a series of comings and goings, as Amélie, who toils as a waitress in a café loaded with eccentrics, decides to follow in the footsteps of the recently deceased Princess Diana (much of the show is set in 1997) and devote herself to good works. This leads to a lot of running around Paris, with Amélie in pursuit of, or pursued by, Nino, an artist who, when not working in a sex shop, collects photos taken in one of the many booths found in Metro stations.

The show wants us to be avidly interested in the eventual meeting of Amélie and Nino, but we never learn enough about them to care. Even with a lengthy prologue devoted to her unhappy childhood, Amélie is less a character than a little squiggle denoting a winsome jeune fille, and Nino is a pencil sketch of an earnest young artist; other than the fact that they are starring in a musical, there's no earthly reason why we should care if these two ciphers get together.

Adam Chanler-Berat brings his considerable charm to bear on the role of Nino, and he does very well by a number titled "Thin Air," delivered while he hangs missing-person fliers all over in an attempt at tracking Amélie down, but the character barely exists. The only other figure of consequence is Dufayel, aka The Glass Man, a reclusive artist whose bones break at the touch of another -- get the connection? -- and who has spent the last twenty years trying to copy Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party"; Tony Sheldon does his best to give him some eccentric charm, even if he only exists to tell Amélie to "live your own life instead of the lives of others." Also likable are Harriett D. Foy as Suzanne, an ex-trapeze performer with one leg shorter than the other; Manoel Felciano as Amélie's father, who really, really wants his gnome back; and Whitty and Alyse Alan Louis as a pair of impulsive lovers who emerge from the bathroom after a brief, intense lovemaking session, trying to pretend that nothing has happened.

The director, Pam MacKinnon, aided by Sam Pinkleton's musical staging, is adept at moving the characters around the set, but, given the weakness of the material, the impression is that of general busyness with no clear aim. The songs -- music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messé -- often feel as skittish as Amélie, the melodies livened up considerably by Bruce Coughlin's pop-influenced orchestrations. The lyrics sometimes sport a welcome off-center humor -- a letter from a lover who ran off to Peru reads, "If I could reach you/in Machu Picchu" -- and sometimes indulge in pointless vulgarity: "Love is just another diagnosis/Like bacterial vaginosis," sings one of a female trio, fed up with romance, in "A Better Haircut," an unsuccessful pass at an Act II showstopper.

In addition, the production design often confuses charm with clutter. Zinn's basic set design features slanted piles of wardrobes at left and right, with a pair of staircases linked by a bridge. There's no romance of Paris here, just a lot of furniture piled up, for no apparent reason. (Given the preponderance of vintage furniture you could almost stage Arthur Miller's The Price on it.) The projection designer, Peter Nigrini, turns the wardrobes into buildings by affixing images of windows on them -- a clever touch that makes the set a bit more attractive. The show curtain features a kind of blue Regency wallpaper design, but a closer look reveals that images of animals are embedded in the design; thanks to Nigrini's magic, some of the animals -- a dragonfly, a rabbit -- come to life and move around. It's a smart, sly gag, and what it has to do with Amélie, the musical, is beyond me. The lighting, by Jane Cox and Mark Barton, is solid without having any special qualities. Kai Harada's sound design is generally clear and crisp.

Amélie is what people used to call a charm show, but, in its overreliance on a general mood of winsomeness, it can be something of a trial to sit through. The show ends with Amélie and Nino singing "What's gonna happen and where do we go from here?" Personally, I see this as their problem. I'm not sure I really care. -- David Barbour

(12 April 2017)

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