Phillipa Soo and Adam Chanler-Berat star in "Amelie," a new musical based on the 2001 French film (Photo by Joan Marcus)
To charm is to be effortless, to captivate an audience while making it seem like you aren’t even trying. The new Broadway musical “Amelie,” starring “Hamilton” actress Phillipa Soo, is all visible effort, with very little reward.
The show is based on the 2001 French film “Amelie,” one of those aggressively whimsical fantasies that you either find adorable or insufferable. (Count me in the latter camp.) It proves to be more challenging source material than you might imagine. In trying to translate to the stage the visual language of the film — hyper-stylized imagery, oddball non sequiturs, fantastical special effects — the creators end up tripping over themselves and losing sight of the story. Even if you’ve seen the film and know the plot, this “Amelie” comes off as muddled and often baffling.
Soo plays the title character, a cripplingly shy young woman who — following a protracted prologue that recounts her sad childhood — arrives in Paris and sets about improving the lives of those around her, all the while ignoring her own loneliness.
It’s hardly the worst concept for a musical — the bashful-and-lovesick girl is a reliable staple of the rom-com genre. Yet instead of focusing on the emotional core of the material, director Pam MacKinnon (a Tony winner for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) serves up a steady supply of gimmicks. To wit: The leaping goldfish and the imaginary friend alligator– rendered in CGI in the film — are here played by human actors, as is the traveling gnome from the film. On stage, all of this looks even more ridiculous than it sounds.
In her first major outing since “Hamilton,” Soo’s voice remains legitimately enchanting — strong, clear and capable of piercing beauty. But she generates zero chemistry opposite her love interest, played by Adam Chanler-Berat. (Don’t blame him; the character is barely developed in Craig Lucas’ script.) The music by Daniel Messe is mostly of the bland show tune variety, save for an inexplicable Elton John tribute number, performed by an actor in purple wig and giant sunglasses, presumably meant to actually be Elton John. This is wrong in too many ways to count.
The lyrics by Nathan Tysen have the odd effect of being overly expository (“A sign says the apartment’s vacant / on the second floor,” Amelie sings upon arriving in Paris) and yet still unable to explicate precisely what’s supposed to be going on. “Amelie” misses even what should have been a gimme, and fails to bring to life the character’s Montmartre neighborhood that the movie so richly imagined. The set design by David Zinn is bright and busy, but gives us little sense of the geography or look of Amelie’s world.
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th St., New York
Tickets: $59.50-$169.50, available online at www.ticketmaster.com. On sale through Oct. 1.