Saturday, April 8, 2017

Review: A Fluffy Heart

By Michael Block

Inspired by the 2001 French film of the same name, Amelie has been given the musical theater treatment. With book by Craig Lucas, music by Daniel Messe, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messe, this romantic comedy is fluffy and sweet. And that’s about it. Amelie isn’t revolutionary, it is what it is: silly.
Amelie is a girl with a big heart. Her childhood isn’t perfect. Her dad is a germaphobe. Her mom is neurotic. She is sheltered from the outside world. But even when tragedy strikes, in the form of her best friend Fluffy the goldfish being flushed way to the Seine and her mom getting crushed by a suicidal tourist, Amelie has hopes for something different from her quiet life. Spending years as a waitress at a café, she spends her days helping others while not helping herself. And that’s essentially where the rest of the musical's journey. We watch Amelie on her tour of good deeds until her heart longs for something new. Amelie is a delectably world of whimsy and joy but the overall execution is mediocre at best. You want to root for Amelie, both the character and the show, but it often gets in its own way. There is a lot of heart but not much else. Daniel Messe’s score is a melodic modern folk and pop mix that doesn’t quite offer variety in sound. Each number gives off the same midtempo vibe that it’s hard to leave the theater humming along. And even when it does stray and pick up, in moments like “Goodbye, Amelie” featuring a bizarro alternate universe Elton John and the supporting women showcase number “A Better Haircut,” they don’t fully serve the overall arc but get plopped into Lucas’ libretto just for variety’s sake. And it’s a shame as the latter is one of the highlights of the score. The score was very much the Achilles’ Heel of the production. And it’s a shame. The musical ends with a sweet finish in a beautiful song in “Where Do We Go From Here.” It’s a strong yet soft, understated conclusion but lacks the emphasis it deserves when it feels like the rest of the show. Amelie’s world is full of luster and variety and that’s what this score needed. If the sole, central “conflict” of Amelie is whether to help others or help herself, the romance plotline between Amelie and Nino needed to be amplified significantly. Lucas gives us a taste of the love-at-first-sight amorousness but we want more. It’s hard to want the pair to end up together if we’re given so little.
photo by Joan Marcus
When it comes to bringing cinema to life, director Pam McKinnon achieves the unimaginable. She uses David Zinn’s pleasant looking set to her advantage. But if you look a little closer, there are a lot of distractions in staging to deter from the real problems. This is essentially a fantasy conjured up by the titular character. And yet it feels far too subdued to work. She does her best to break from the plateau that is the Craig Lucas’ book but when she finally does so, it’s far too late. That being said, the fluidity of McKinnon’s staging is near flawless. The world keeps chugging along, giving those moments alone for Amelie worth something. For those who may suffer from OCD, Zinn’s set is deliberately askew. And it’s right for Amelie’s world. He gives nods to the locale through his design in both the set and the costumes.
Phillipa Soo has made a name for herself in two previous smash hits. While pretty central, her roles were supported by an ensemble of equals. Amelie is a departure for Soo where the show falls on her shoulders, needing to carry the show. Soo is delightful. Her voice is pretty. Her presence is sweet. But the character gave her little to play with that her full potential didn’t shine through. As Nino, Adam Chanler-Berat brought his charm as he chased down Amelie. It wasn’t until late in the show that Harriett D. Foy, Alyse Alan Louis, and maria-Christina Oliveras got their moment to truly shine. And they did. Playing Amelie’s co-workers Suzanne, Georgette, and Gina respectively, this trio got us wanting more. With a show providing snapshots like pictures from a photo booth, Foy, Louis, and Oliveras made their characters, at times, more engaging that the titular one.
Amelie was played far too safe. It’s an enchanting show that doesn’t ruffle any feathers. If you’re looking for something that will warm you heart, this might be it. But in such a staked season of musical theater on Broadway, Amelie is a middle of the pack musical. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s just Amelie.