The most adorable character in all of French cinema finds her way to the American stage in the new musical adaptation of “Amélie,” and while it’s practically impossible not to love a singing version of the whimsical pixie — especially when played by “Hamilton” breakout Phillipa Soo — her quest for romance simply doesn’t translate. Whereas the hyper-kinetic charm of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 movie relies on an arsenal of cinema-specific techniques, the Broadway-bound stage version clumsily tries to accomplish the same by rolling around sets and furniture, when punchier songs (by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé, of the band Hem) should have done the trick.
Is it cute? Yes, of course. Is it clever, poignant, or profound? While the urge to pinch her cheeks remains practically irresistible, the desire to share in Amélie Poulain’s adventures proves considerably less compelling. And yet, the pleasantly diverting stage version — developed by Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year, and now playing a six-week run at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre before transferring to Broadway next spring — should satisfy its share of tourists all the same, most of whom remember little more than the world-traveling garden gnome (who gets his own musical number).
Still, for those who go because they love the movie, the musical deprives “Amélie” of that all-important ingredient, the closeup — to say nothing of the energy supplied by its bold compositions, near-constant camera movement and dynamic cutting. Without that tactic, the show trades the signature appeal of Audrey Tautou’s enormous brown eyes for a quirky wardrobe: an eye-crossing red-and-black getup that mixes plaid with horizontal stripes, loud flower prints and polka dots, some worn by Soo, the rest by her 10-year-old counterpart, Savvy Crawford.
Soo is pretty much the main reason to see the show — which unfurls in a single intermission-free stretch — though it also boasts a colorful Parisian set that crowns the city’s artsy, elevated Montmartre neighborhood with a bridge lifted from the Canal Saint-Martin, clear across town. This lovely wrought iron structure, from which Amélie skips stones in the movie, offers a scenic second proscenium, below which the scene is constantly changing from Amélie’s bobo apartment to the Café des 2 Moulins (where she works) to, most amusingly, the red-light neighborhood’s sketchy Peep-O-Rama — in which disembodied legs give private dances behind closed doors.
Because the original “Amélie” doesn’t so much tell a story as scurry after its upbeat heroine (she’s part voyeur, part well-meaning meddler, cheering up depressives and fixing up couples wherever she goes), playwright Craig Lucas is obliged to invent some sort of unifying narrative. Naturally, the romantic angle remains, albeit amplified considerably, as Amélie and would-be boyfriend Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat) are constantly almost but never-quite meeting. That, of course, is the place where the musical wants to get to, and to make the wait as tantalizing as possible, Lucas (a talented writer who works in both theater and film, best known for “Prelude to a Kiss” and “The Light in the Piazza”) turns to Zeno’s dichotomy paradox: Repeatedly dividing the distance one intends to travel by half makes it impossible to reach one’s destination.
Amélie learns this lesson during a rather long stretch of childhood backstory — one that even finds time for an entire song dedicated to the home-schooled young lady’s lone companion, a goldfish named Fluffy — though Crawford is such a delightful presence, one almost wishes there were more opportunity for her to appear (either in flashback or as the instigator for adult Amélie’s more childlike impulses). Less charming is the dreary opening number, in which the entire cast files onstage through a gilded frame-liked opening in the scrim, singing about how “Everything Is Connected,” a rip-off of “Rent’s” group-sung “Seasons of Love.” A simple spotlight might have helped, focusing our attention as they react to a pesky fly (invisible to the naked eye) that artificially links characters who will soon be connected organically enough.
Once Soo re-makes her proper entrance, the show picks up, and the regulars at the cafe where she works — widowed owner Gina (Maria-Christina Oliveras), jilted circus artist Suzanne (Harriett D. Foy), obsessive plumber Joseph (Paul Whitty), hypochondriac Georgette (Alyse Alan Louis), and struggling poet Hipolito (Randy Blair) — do double- and even triple-duty playing the many minor lives illuminated by Amélie’s upbeat spirit.
Jeunet’s original scenario, co-written with Guillaume Laurant, is overcrowded with incident. And yet, the musical form offers the ideal strategy for translating all those tiny vignettes (or a slew of like-minded new ones) to the stage, since music provides the illusion of continuity while jumping around in space and time — or back and forth between reality and imagination.
But Tysen and Messé don’t exploit that opportunity nearly enough, turning tiny details into full-blown songs (including a hammy Elton John fantasy sequence, in which she imagines her own version of the pop icon’s Princess Diana tribute, “Goodbye Amélie,” sung by Blair, as a bearded Elton impersonator in rose-tinted glasses and razzle-dazzle bell-bottoms), rather than cramming lots of color into a single number.
Instead, projected images help piece together the story, while most of the movement comes from dragging the furniture on-and off-stage as needed. Scenic designer David Zinn’s Day-Glo sets are fun (yellow and turquoise structures constructed at an exaggerated angle to emphasize Amélie’s off-kilter worldview), and so are his colorful vintage-eyesore fashions (a playful contradiction of Paris’ role as fashion capital of the world). Still, Amélie does love a good scavenger hunt, and a fair amount of the show’s plot involves her trying to return things to their rightful owners — whether the tin box of precious childhood keepsakes discovered in her apartment or the album of salvaged photo-booth portraits dropped by Nino. Once again, Lucas has written a prelude to a kiss, until characters flummoxed by Zeno’s paradox can finally agree to meet halfway.