The new musical Amélie is an absolutely charming musical achievement, with an outstanding cast, an inventive story, melodic tunes, a great band, complex stage craft, and a happy ending. Please keep this sentence in mind, when I write that Amélie may still be in its ingénue phase and could benefit from a bit of tightening here and there before it’s absolutely ready for New York, where it is likely heading.
The story, based on the 2001 critical and audience French film favorite, Amélie, is about a shy young waitress at a tiny Montmartre café who secretly devotes herself to helping others find happiness, and perhaps herself as well. Directed and co-written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and starring the gamine Audrey Tautou, the film was filled with close-ups of the adorable Tautou, and long-shots of romantic Paris. But no one sang. Although, after seeing the Berkeley Rep version, it seems obvious that music is a natural accompaniment to the whimsical plot and magical mood of the film.
Berkeley Rep has gathered a sterling cast and crew for this production, and it shows. Craig Lucas, the multi-talented award-winning playwright (Missing Persons, Prelude to a Kiss), screenwriter (Longtime Companion) and librettist (An American in Paris) wrote the book. Daniel Messé (founder and principal songwriter of the band Hem) composed the music and wrote the lyrics with the up-and-coming Nathan Tysen. Award-winning New York director Pam MacKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Clybourne Park) keeps all the balls in the air, not a mean feat.
Playing Amélie should be a break-out role for the talented Samantha Barks, who’s already played the role of Éponine on London’s West End and in the film version of Les Misérables, among others. She seemed to be on stage almost entirely throughout the one and three-quarter hours of the play. And virtually all of the dialogue is in song. But her beautifully strong voice and acting ability never wavered as she quietly arranged for people around her to find their soul-mates or reap other rewards. Nino, the object of Amélie’s affection, played by Adam Chanler-Berat (New York’s The Fortress of Solitude and Peter and the Starcatcher) is also excellent, as is the rest of the cast, particularly Savvy Crawford, as the young Amélie.
In anticipation of seeing the musical, I watched the film version of Amélie, and found it not as loveable as I had expected, mainly because of the overdone close-ups and long-shots. The play’s wonderfully creative and quirky stage set, and costume design by David Zinn (Berkeley Rep’s Mother Courage and Girlfriend and Broadway’s Fun Home), suits perfectly the tone of the musical, even better than did the Paris streets.
The music was tuneful, fun and harmonious, but a bit forgettable, except for two numbers. The first, a solo Elton John imitation, wasn’t bad, it was merely misplaced, as though it walked in from a production of Beach Blanket Babylon. The second, however, a rousing song by the trio at the café (Carla Duren, Alyse Alan Louis and Maria-Christina Oliveras), should be a showstopper on either coast.
Some episodes from the movie had been cut, but aside from noting that they had been eliminated, I didn’t miss them much. It does seem as though a decision should be made as to whether Amélie should have an intermission. Although my preference is typically to eliminate intermission, this musical has so much material that it could benefit from having one. And since the second half of the production had a faster pace than the first, and the ending seemed a tad rushed, it seems like a break would be beneficial.
Enough of my little quibbles. Amélie is an absolute delight in all respects. I recommend it highly.
Amélie is playing at Berkeley Rep through Oct.11, 2015. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.
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