Review: Amélie the Musical (Criterion Theater)
“Times are tough for dreamers,” says the flagship song of this American adaptation of the 2001 French film about a stubbornly altruistic Parisian waitress, but those lyrics could have applied to the entire theater industry in Canada as well. over the past 15 months. Dreamers can then rejoice that Michael Fentiman’s magnificent production – heavily revised from the unsuccessful Broadway original by another director – has found its way into the West End, where this unusual musical seems infinitely better suited to the cast. whipped cream and dusty pink fluff from the Criterion than it did for the considerably less atmospheric Other Palace where it sold before the pandemic.
The aforementioned number is staged with Audrey Brisson in the lead role – sometimes strikingly resembling Amélie, Audrey Tautou on screen – in the midst of a maelstrom of actor-musicians swaying in rapture, like a little conductor. orchestra carried by its ecstatic orchestra. It’s a magical effect, one of many in a production that constantly rejoices in the possibilities of live theater, from the witty use of mime to the evocative and precise lighting of Elliot Griggs to the irresistible puppets. by Dik Downey. The direction of Tom Jackson Greaves’ movement ranges from leading to stomping to sketchy redefining of expectations of what a performer can do with an expensive orchestral instrument strapped to him!
Madeleine Girling’s ensemble, resembling a cross between a Parisian metro station and a germinating Art Deco hotel lobby, is absolutely beautiful and founds the show in a semi-mythical Paris that is both immediately recognizable and unfortunately inaccessible. Upright pianos are mixed together to form walkways and platforms, while an entire cafe pops up in the blink of an eye, and Amelie is carried up into the air towards her circular scarlet eagle nest while clinging to a shade growing from flies.
Retired, vigilant and unknowable, Amélie herself is a strange heroine for a musical, without big “I want” or cry of heart until very late in the show, but magnetic Brisson invests her with charm, quiet intensity and of a versatility, piercing. soprano. In a uniformly excellent company, whose only missteps are a few crimes against the French accent, Kate Robson-Stuart’s sculptural circus artist-turned-restaurant-owner and comically-stranded writer Caolan McCarthy stand out in particular.
The technicalities are so fascinating here, and so fiercely talented is the multitasking 16-person cast, it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that, as a musical, Amelie is a bit of a mess. The light but twisty story is hard to follow if you haven’t seen the movie before, and the muddy sound design doesn’t help, also making much of Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé’s lyrics unintelligible. Nonetheless, Messé’s shimmering, surging and folkloric score often soars and is never less than appealing, with Barnaby Race’s melancholy strings and sparkling woodwind arrangements layered on the accordion, suggesting a Gallic lyrical response to Once. Singing often makes the blood vibrate.
Set elsewhere than in romantic, enchanted Paris, this non-narrative of a young woman (perhaps chronically depressed) wandering through a city with no connection to other locals would likely not be seen as ripe for musicalization. As if he was keenly aware of this, Craig Lucas’ book is surprisingly overloaded with minor characters, almost all of whom seemingly need their own song, so there isn’t enough emotional punch left for the central relationship between the heroine and her distant father and the romantic will-they-not-go plot regarding the beautifully tormented and superbly sung photographer Chris Jared.
Fentiman matches the unruly script with a playful and compelling stylistic approach featuring a singing fish, a globe-trotting gnome, marauding human-sized fruit dragging a grumpy grocer like a fresh version of Don Giovanni and, surprisingly even in a show as eccentric as this, Elton John. This aesthetic of “throwing everything at the wall” reaches its apotheosis in a scene where Brisson, dressed as a nun, sings at the top of his lungs next to a display case full of dildos: we will certainly not be bored at Amélie, but you will find perhaps your tolerance for whimsical charm is somewhat tested.
It might not be a great musical, or even very cohesive, but Amelie is undeniably a hit as a whimsical Valentine’s Day in the City of Light and, in this iteration, as a celebration of the unbeatable power of live music. It also represents, in the hands of Michael Fentiman and a world-class creative team and cast, a joyous return to the West End for daring and imaginative theatricality.
Tickets are on sale now.