“Hamilton” Tony nominee Phillipa Soo returns to Broadway this month in a well-intentioned but uninspiring musical adaptation of the quirky 2001 film “Amélie.” The 100-minute long tuner has a somewhat faithful book by Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”) and a banal, disappointing score from Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s mischievous movie seems an unlikely contender for a theatrical update, with its charms born of the twinkle in star Audrey Tautou’s eyes, sweeping Montmarte visuals and offbeat cinematic cutaways. The first scenes depict the formation of the embryo that will become the kooky title character, for goodness’ sake!
A refresher: “Amélie” is the story of a shy waitress who secretly orchestrates moments of joy for the people in her orbit, after she’s, yes, jarred by the sudden death of Princess Diana. Her shock at the event sparks a discovery in her home, a box of childhood treasures belonging to a long-ago tenant.
Amélie tracks him down and soon sets out to do good everywhere—including contriving to have a beloved garden gnome appear to send postcards home from a world tour, in an attempt to prod her widowed father from his depression. However, she’s reluctant to embark on her own personal journey, despite overtures from a handsome stranger who clearly wants to join her.
On the Walter Kerr stage, Soo is joined by a team of pros including Adam Chanler-Berat (“Next to Normal”) as love interest Nino, who collects discarded pictures from photo booths, and Tony Sheldon (“Priscilla”) as the fragile neighbor who redraws the same Renoir painting every year and recognizes that Amelie needs coaxing out of her shell.
Elements of the film that were startling or poignant—the death of Amélie’s mother, who is crushed by a suicidal tourist; the forced release of the young Amélie’s goldfish into a raging river—are awkwardly played for laughs. The tourist hell bent on killing himself here is represented by a blow-up doll resembling the Stay Puft Marshmallow man.
Soo is a game gamine who deserves material to match her fine talents. She excels at the cat-and-mouse game that’s been constructed for her character, and she’s pleasing in every moment on stage.
Chanler-Berat is again cast as a forlorn outsider, who happens to work as a clerk at a pornography shop. (Props used in one scene render this “Amélie” questionable material for young audiences.) Sheldon, as is his custom, breathes life into what would otherwise be a caricature.
“Amélie” never seems to figure out what it wants to be, and its flaws lie in a combination of inconsistent directing by the usually reliable Pam MacKinnon (“…Virginia Woolf”) and charmless, generic compositions.
There’s nothing particularly French about the music or the setting, other than the moment Amélie learns about Diana’s death, when an English news broadcast interrupts the French-dubbed episode of “Friends” she’s watching.
The most memorable song, “Goodbye, Amélie,” features a character modeled on Elton John (Randy Blair, giving it his all), singing what I suppose would have been “Candle in the Wind,” if the rights had been obtained. It’s hysterical, but absurdly campy and plopped in here out of nowhere.
A closing number between the two leads, “Where Do We Go From Here?” is promising, but it arrives too late. By then, I wished I were off somewhere abroad with the more expressive gnome.
“Amélie,” at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219W. 48th St. Tickets, on sale through Oct. 1, $59.50 and up. Call 877-250-2929.
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