by Tony Phillips ****Think back to 2001. If you went to the art-house cinema at all that fall, chances are it was to catch Jean-Pierre Jeune’s wide-eyed ingénue Amélie. With its many super-tight shots of newcomer Audrey Tautou’s eyes floating across the screen, it’s hard to reckon if there’s ever been a character drawn from film who was more ready for her Broadway close-up. Add to that the stage return to the stage of Hamilton’s best-known Schuyler sister, Phillipa Soo, in the title role and you’ve got one of the most anticipated new Broadway musicals of the spring season. Unfortunately, if this is whimsy-overloaded musical is something you’ve been mooning over, to quote the opening number, “Times are hard for dreamers.”
The main problem for composer Daniel Messe and lyricist Nathan Tysen is how do you compose an “I want…” song for a musical theater heroine who really just wants to sit alone in her apartment and occasionally use a telescope to spy on her neighbors? Her early life, homeschooled by neurotic parents who imprison her because of an imagined “weak heart,” is not much more interesting. France’s answer to Dr. Phil could have really helped this family. There’s the creepy, daily “health checkup” courtesy of Manoel Feliciano’s checked-out, germaphobe father. And then her mother, played by Alison Cimmet, drags young Amélie, the delightfully-named newcomer Savvy Crawford, into town to dump her talking goldfish and “World’s Best Friend” — Fluffy — into the Seine just before mom is crushed to death by a suicidal tourist who plunges from the top of Notre Dame.
If you had to read the talking goldfish line twice, this might not be the show for you. Certainly once her mother’s grave marker, a singing garden gnome, begins to belt his world travel number, wait for it, “There’s No Place Like Gnome,” I was wondering when the next elevator to the top of Notre Dame was departing. This is a show that makes Paris’ lively Montmartre district seem washed out, largely on account of David Zinn’s lopsided, low-budget set, and asks you to root for a romance that proceeds full throttle even after Amélie discovers that her intended, Adam Chandler-Berat’s Nino, works in a grotty Pigalle sex shop, a red flag waving as earnestly as if Les Miserables’ Enjolras has just unfurled it on the barricade.
Book writer Craig Lucas seems to make the only sensible decision here, nixing the film’s cloying narrator and dividing storytelling duties amongst the dizzying number of characters portrayed by the chamber cast, some of whom tackle three different roles that director Pam MacKinnon has considerable difficulty juggling. There’s the rare standout. Alyse Alan Louis’s Sylvie, a scheming porn shop worker, is clearly this franchise’s Rhoda-in-waiting, but, largely, characters whiz by, drop their trademarked line from the film, and then disappear into the night like the shadowy subjects of Brassai’s Paris de Nuit. At about the halfway mark of this intermission-less hour and forty minutes, Randy Blair takes the stage in an Elton John fat suit to serenade our Diana-obsessive lead with the song, “Goodbye, Amélie,” but I’d bid this mousy neurotic adieu about ten minutes prior.
Amélie, A New Musical is currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W 48th St, New York, NY, 877.250.2929 See www.AmelieBroadway.com