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  • 3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by David Cote

Times are hard for dreamers” sings Amélie Poulain (Phillipa Soo) in the new musical that bears her name, but the lyrics aren’t strictly true. During the intermission-free hour and 45 minutes of this promising but never delivering musical fantasy, you can easily (and frequently) dream up ways the creative team might have better turned the 2001 film into a stage event that didn’t cloy and harden into static quirk halfway through.

Adaptation is an ancient and noble art, but some things simply work better on film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s swoony-cartoony movie, with its saturated reds and greens, manic angles and surreal flourishes (lovelorn Amélie deliquesces in a literal rain of tears!) has an exuberance that makes the baroque whimsy go down like a fine bordeaux.

But what’s the theatrical equivalent of a perfectly framed close-up? A three-minute ballad from the heart? Not exactly. So book writer Craig Lucas and songwriters Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen are at pains to articulate a singable emotional center of the source while staying true to its careening, cinematic narrative. The two duties ultimately cancel each other out.

Diligently tracing the Roald Dahl–ish screenplay by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant, Amélie first introduces a French girl trapped between emotionally stunted parents, a cold-fish father (Manoel Felciano) and a neurotic mother (Alison Cimmet). Mom takes Amélie to Notre Dame, where she’s tragically squashed by a Belgian tourist committing suicide from the top of that cathedral. Our plucky, fantasy-prone hero grows up, moves to Paris, finds work in a café and develops a tremulous fascination with Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), who collects discarded pictures he finds outside instant-photo booths in train stations.

To the role that wide-eyed, bob-cut Audrey Tautou made iconic, Soo brings her luminous charm and heavenly voice, not inconsequential assets. After star-making turns in the original Off Broadway cast of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and in Hamilton, Soo was due a musical of her own. But playing Amélie is a mixed blessing. She’s fairly active—reuniting a melancholy man with his childhood past, playing matchmaker with a coworker and often chasing or evading Nino—but the rendering of her character is stubbornly passive. When your musical hinges on the hero’s emotional breakthrough at the very end, you better build a Company-level world around him or her and stick the climax with a great song. This score is a string of dreamy and wistful pop numbers that blur together.

Director Pam MacKinnon keeps the ensemble whirling, story-theater–style, around the Paris fun-house set, trading off bits of narration and forming an eccentric a parade of outlandish roles: goldfish, garden gnome, Elton John. But no matter how deft the costume change, it can seem a leaden contrivance compared to a good jump cut.

Walter Kerr Theatre. Book by Craig Lucas. Music by Daniel Messé. Lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. With Phillipa Soo, Adam Chanler-Berat. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.

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Written by
David Cote


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