Berkeley Rep's Amélie: a New Musical Is Sheer Delight
By Lou Fancher
Berkeley Rep’s Amélie: A New Musical, is a flat-out splurge: a magical, timeless plunge into love, art, goldfish puppetry, snake-eyed marbles, coin-operated photo booths, Parisian bedrooms, sex shops, cafés, and all manner of desirable targets.
Amélie is deft social commentary, too. It's excavation of parents and people afraid to connect, inscrutable art, half-way journeys that never reach their destination, cruel fate doubling a suicide’s loss (a man jumps to his death from the heights of Notre Dame, lands on — and kills — a young girl’s mother) and all manner of tragedies.
Based on the five-time Academy Award-nominated 2001 French romantic comedy film, The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, the world premiere of author Craig Lucas’ book adapted for the stage bursts with joy, delight, imagination, talent, and tenderness. Skillfully directed by Pam MacKinnon, the production capitalizes on David Zinn’s brilliant, skewed set. Tilted wardrobes and dressers transform into a Paris skyline at night; off-kilter picture frames become windows offering escape; and a simple waist-high curtain displays the incongruous combination of a red sea, a lover’s journey, and a geography lesson. A first-rate band, Music Director Kimberly Grigsby’s robust delivery of Daniel Messé’s richly harmonic score, slyly clever lyrics by Messé and co-lyricist Nathan Tysen, and the many skills of a diverse and sprightly cast invigorate the visuals.
Charismatic energy is never enough to carry a show and the world premiere would benefit from nips and tucks to tighten it’s ambitious effort to include many of the film’s favorite elements. But applied to a charming coming-of-age story about a young woman whose life on the streets of Montmartre is a constant search for connection, vivacious charm falls into lockstep with nostalgia and poignancy. It’s exactly this dance between absurd escapism, true and false memories and relatable heartache that elevates Amélie’s potential.
The title character (the admirable Samantha Barks, with a young Amélie impressively played by the 9-year-old sensation Savvy Crawford) survives a difficult childhood by viewing the world through a restrictive copper spyglass and allowing her imagination free rein. Her father (a fine comedic turn by John Hickok) likes his daughter “in theory” but can’t bear to get close. Her mother (a scene-stealing Alison Cimmet) is a taskmaster who prays for a son until the moment she is killed (as noted above). Seven years later and working at “Café des 2 Moulins” (Two Windmills Cafe), Amélie discovers a treasure box in her apartment. Thus begins a journey following “fantastic breadcrumbs” that drive the action and arrive most importantly in the form of an accidentally left-behind scrapbook filled with photo booth images, each showing the same “mystery man” with a second stranger. Other “breadcrumbs” are entertaining, if less vital to the plot; garden gnomes that animate, an Elton John impersonator (a stellar Randy Blair) and more.
Amélie is like the Tooth Fairy of love, distributing matchmaking tidbits that has her pairing a grouchy plumber (Paul Whitty’s pipes are appropriately high quality) with a hypochondriac co-worker (apt Alyse Alan Louis); a former circus trapeze-artist-turned-café-owner (dynamic Maria-Christina Oliveras) with Amélie’s widowed father; a fellow waitress and entrepreneur (another good-as-gold performance from Carla Duren) with a future client, and more.
But the shy Amélie is less assured when it comes to scrapbook owner Nino (adorable Adam Chanler-Berat who might auction off hugs at intermission if the 1 hr. 45 min. musical offered one). Numerous 10-second encounters leave Nino racing all over Paris in pursuit of his scrapbook — and later in pursuit of Amélie. It takes the coaching of a neighbor, a wise old artist (fantastic and fun to watch Tony Sheldon) who’s foolishly spent years repainting Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party in hopes of figuring out it’s mysteries, to set her straight: “Time’s running out,” he tells Amélie.
That advice, following a gorgeous duet Amélie sings with Nino as they stand, separated by a closed door (“Stay where you are…move any closer, you’re only half way there,” the lyrics say), catapult the lovers into a world of gentle kisses, practical answers to the mysterious photos and allegories explaining the blank stare of Renoir’s “lady with the glass.”
Amélie shows us that it’s possible to gaze without seeing, to speak without ever mentioning a conversation’s topic, to search and in the search break free from desire, and beautifully, to imagine connection and find it.