by Gary Meyer
In 2001, the French movie Amélie became a surprise international hit and launched the career of Audrey Tatou. Its eccentric style under the direction of Jean-Pierre Jeunet captured the imagination of audiences who returned to see it multiple times, and earned it five Academy Award nominations – rare for a subtitled movie.
When word came of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s plan to turn Amélie into a musical for the stage, there was understandable skepticism. How would they capture the wild camerawork and special effects that were a part of the movie’s unique vision?
The team being assembled was impressive. The script was to be written by Craig Lucas who has penned many plays including Reckless, Blue Window, Prelude to a Kiss and Ode To Joy; and the films Longtime Companion, The Secret Lives of Dentists, and The Dying Gaul, which he adapted and directed from his own play.
Movies adapted as stage musicals have rarely been successful, but Lucas wrote the libretti for two of the most satisfying recent transfers from celluloid to in-the-flesh productions, The Light in the Piazza and An American in Paris, so he understood what works.
Daniel Messé (founder and songwriter of the band Hem) and Nathan Tysen (co-author of the score for Broadway-bound “Tuck Everlasting”) were chosen to create the music and lyrics with their extensive backgrounds in musical theater, rock music and television.
And to bring it all together Tony, Obie and Drama Desk Award winning director Pam MacKinnon (on Broadway: Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance) was a solid choice.
But how would they make it work?
Wonderfully, it turns out.
I have not seen the movie in fourteen years, and decided not to watch it before going to the play. Things start out with a familiar narrative: young Amélie is to be home-schooled, her parents fearing she might experience poor health if exposed to other children. Her boredom at home is countered by her vivid imagination, presented early on when her pet goldfish Fluffy grows from the fishbowl into a large talking puppet (clearly inspired by The Lion King on stage and hundreds of years of puppetry in theater). The 9-year-old Savvy Crawford is totally right for the young Amélie, but the first part of the show drags a bit. While we enjoy her company, not enough happens, threatening to lose our attention.
But soon a teenaged Amélie (Samantha Barks) sets off for Paris, unsure of herself but knowing she must leave home and experience a bigger world. As soon as Barks comes onstage she demands our attention. Once in the Paris neighborhood of Montmartre, she meets a collection of eccentric characters.
Discovering a treasure box in her apartment leads her on a journey to do good things for people and bring them together. Though privately enjoying the results of her secret arrangements, Amélie is still a loner. Trying to help her understand life is a neighbor, touchingly played by Tony Sheldon, who paints Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party over and over in hopes of discovering the mysteries of the painting and his own life. Imaginary visits from her younger self bring Crawford and Barks together to discuss life. She makes friends at the Café des Deux Moulins where she works and clandestinely creates situations that benefit each of them.
When Amélie sees the shy and eccentric photo-collage artist Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat) at a photo booth, she is intrigued. She finds his misplaced book of art projects, which sets into motion a kind of cat-and-mouse game to return it. Amélie knows they are bound to come face-to-face, but is frightened the meeting might not match her expectations.
The fast-moving narrative is packed with mini-stories, though wisely not as many as in the movie. There is almost no spoken dialogue, as most exposition is sung to bridge the true musical numbers.
No song has the audience coming out humming an instant classic, though a second hearing might change that. Messé and Tyson have done a good job, and there are several highlights. Certainly the funniest song surrounds the cleverly staged world adventures of the lawn gnome Amélie steals from her father. “There’s No Place Like Gnome” would be too clichéd a title if it wasn’t so perfect. Amélie and Nino have two touching songs together, a reprise of “Halfway” (sung earlier by the two Amélies) and a beautiful “Stay.”
A broad spoof of Elton John, “Goodbye, Amélie” entertains with an over-the-top performance by Randy Blair (also playing a too-serious unpublished poet) but it is in the wrong show, especially coming just after Amélie has learned of the death of Princess Diana. We understand why the creators were tempted, but the juxtaposition is jarring and uncomfortable.
The showstopper is “A Better Haircut,” sung with high energy by Maria-Christina Oliveras, Randy Blair and Alyse Alan Louis. These three are a joy throughout the show, and when they break into this high-energy number, the audience shows them the appreciation they deserve.
But it is Samantha Barks who carries the show. When I saw the filmed musical of Les Miserables I did not feel strongly about it one way or the other, except for the stunning solo “On My Own,” sung by Éponine. It was unforgettable. After Amélie I read Barks’ credits and learned she had played Éponine on stage in London and in the movie. I understood why we could not stop watching and listening to this star-in-the-making on the Berkeley Rep stage.
Music Director Kimberly Grigsby energetically leads an eight-piece orchestra hidden behind the scenery until their curtain call. We were sitting in side mezzanine box seats, and we were delighted to glimpse her conducting on TV monitors facing the stage.
David Zinn’s scenic design and Jane Cox’s lighting are creative and take us to a magical place. It made me think of cinema pioneer Georges Mélies (and what a fun double bill the movie of Amélie would make with Scorsese’s Hugo).
Performed without an intermission the 90+ minute play could benefit from a midway break so we can catch our breath but I am not sure where an intermission should come.
The people next to us had been at an earlier preview and were stunned by the changes. The show was tightened, performances improved, and songs came alive. I want to return because I suspect it gets better every night during this World Premiere engagement.
The photo booth in the play is a central theme, and Berkeley Rep cleverly set up a photo booth with various props that audience members could pose with and send themselves the results. I don’t know if it was only for opening night, but it was a fun idea.
Amélie has been extended through October 11. Don’t wait as tickets are selling fast.
P.S. Another perfect double bill with Amélie would be Diva.
All photos from the production courtesy of kevinberne.com.
In an era where many live theaters have reduced their programs to a few pages of credits and ads, Berkeley Rep sets the standard for informative books that people read and keep. You can see the Amélie program here.
Behind the Musical videos:
Tony Taccone – the Michael Leibert artistic director – talks about the world premiere of Amélie, A New Musical.
Director Pam MacKinnon reveals how she approached Amélie, A New Musical, both thematically and visually.
Musical stager and choreographer Sam Pinkleton brings the imaginative world of Amélie, A New Musical to kinetic life by observing, exploring, and accentuating the distinctive movements of each member of the cast.
The original movie is available on DVD, cable and online.
A favorite scene in the movie has Amélie helping a blind man, who also appears in the play:
Gary Meyer started his first theater in the family barn when he was twelve-years-old. He directed a monster movie there and wanted to show it on the set. It became The Above-the-Ground Theatre where over 250 films were screened along with live productions, workshops and the publication of a literary/arts/satire zine, “Nort!” and a film newsletter, “Ciné.” After film school at SFSU he calls his first job as a booker for United Artists Theatres “grad school” that prepared him to co-found Landmark Theatres in 1975. It was the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on many projects including Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007-2014. He founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in April 2014, and is preparing the EatDrinkFilms Festival for Summer, 2016 with a national tour to follow. A day of food films will be presented as part of Food Day on October 24 in San Francisco.