Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Amélie: A New Musical"

Amélie: A New Musical
Craig Lucas (Book)
Daniel Messé (Music)
Nathan Tysen & Daniel Messé (Lyrics)

Samantha Barks as Amélie & Cast
If evaluating on a series of 1-10 scales such as ‘quirky,’ ‘imaginative,’ and ‘eye-popping,’ anyone would be hard pressed not to rate Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere Amélie: A New Musical 10+ on each.  But if we add ‘sweet’ to that list, then be forewarned that I was advised by a friend the night before I attended, “Don’t eat any dessert before going; you’re going to get enough sweet as it is.”  But like any good dessert, how can anyone not walk away from this delightful feast for eyes, ears, and soul fully satiated?  Craig Lucas, Daniel Messé, and Nathan Tysen have taken the award-winning, globally popular 2001 film and added their own American flair to this very French tale of a young girl in the Montmartre of Paris, replacing screen technical wonders with stage theatrics that amaze.  The result has Broadway-bound written all over it, and certainly the Rep’s production looks and feels as if already on the Great White Way.

We first witness scenes of a childhood where Amélie is over-protected by too-distant parents, resulting in her being home-schooled and isolated from any friends (and even being forced to toss her goldfish Fluffy into the  Seine).  Eventually she escapes to be waitress in Paris and soon begins anonymously figuring out how to better the lives of people around her, using The Café of Two Windmills in Montmartre as her base.  Amélie retains her favorite childhood toy, a collapsing telescope, that she uses to peer into the lives of her fellow life travelers.   She then goes around creating fantastical mazes and puzzles that they must magically traverse and solve to find some missing bliss that is right before their eyes.  As Amélie tells us, “The secret to life is to leave a trail of bread crumbs.”  Along the way, she begins to notice a very cute guy who is always lying on the ground with a camera, looking up under the curtains of “Photomats” (those booths where a deposited coin produces 4 instantaneous photos).  Her extreme shyness keeps her from introducing herself to Nino, but of course he begins to notice her, too; and that is where our story becomes ever more deliciously complex, mystical, and yes, romantic.

The story above might be viewed actually as rather ho-hum, but what makes this telling so wonderfully off the map is the way it is told.  Set in David Zinn’s storybook setting of numerous oversized bureaus, chests, and drawers; doors galore that often come and go with flare; and an arced bridge high in the sky (all done in colors right out of a kid’s paint box), Amélie is full of fun and fantasy.  A large cast of ever-moving, ever-changing characters right off a page of a modern fairy tale are somehow wondrously directed by Pam MacKinnon constantly to parade in every direction, always supplying just at the right second needed props (like cartoonish, directional arrows) or moving scenic sections on and off the stage without a pause in the story’s fast and furious flow.  Puppets like Fluffy the Goldfish or props like a yard gnome can all of a sudden become alive on stage and then morph again into a prop.  Brightly hued, overdone-in-just-the-right-way costumes are both French and fantastical in nature (somehow created out of the wild imaginations of David Zinn).  Enchantment is enhanced by Jane Cox’s lighting scheme that never ceases to surprise and fascinate with its sudden spots and twinkles.  The projections that are both child-like in simplicity and head scratching in ‘How are they doing that?’ by Peter Nigrini never intrude but only enhance.  Just the right sound effects occur to let us know that what we are watching is both in and out of this world (Kai Harada).  Finally, but not at all least among this horde of creative geniuses, is the musical direction of Kimberly Grigsby whose orchestra magnificently paints an atmosphere of music that always supports and magnifies the moment’s magic.

And then there are the players themselves and the sometimes bizarre, often eccentric, and always heart-warming characters they portray.  How could there be a more perfectly cast Amélie than Samantha Barks?  With wide eyes of wonder and her combined looks of quizzical mischief, she plots and plans how to reunite a stranger with his boyhood box of wonders, to bring two reluctant lovers together (in a bathroom, no less), and to publish a would-be poet’s one written line all over Paris in order to stimulate him to write more.  And she sings with a fresh, clear voice that delivers Nathan Tysen’s and Daniel Messé’s always-clever, usually-humorous lyrics with ecstatic ease.  At the same time, there is a sadness, shyness and longing for love that is always lurking behind Ms. Barks’ Amélie that becomes more pronounced and almost paralyzing as the story moves to its climax.

Adam Chanler-Berat & Samantha Barks
To match this Amélie, a Nino who is strikingly cute, himself a mystery, and able to be both impetuous and charming is demanded; and Adam Chanler-Berat checks all those and many more boxes.  He too is able to melt hearts with a tenor voice that stretches to tonal heights seemingly without effort.  When he and Amélie finally come face-to-face, their playful, tender, and sexy first kiss has to be one of the best ever on a stage.

Tony Sheldon is Dufayel, the aged painter and guardian angel-of-sorts to Amélie whose wonderfully wrinkled, expressive face and eyes full of dreams help him become the caring father figure hers was never able to be. Joining Amélie in the Montmartre café set is Suzanne (Maria-Christina Oliveras), a former trapeze artist and now big-hearted owner and overseer of her unorthodox staff and clientele.  Paul Whitty’s Joseph mopes at the same table day after day and bemoans the girl that got away while Alyse Alan Louis’ Georgette sneezes through her hypochondriac, lonely life as she waits on him, setting up the perfect scenario for an Amélie intervention.  Other café denizens that combine into a family of sorts include the would-be poet laureate Hipoloto (Randy Blair) who lacks creative inspiration, the young woman with an attitude of “humph” and an opinion about everything and everybody (Carla Duren as Gina), and the really hilarious Alison Cimmet as a flight attendant Philomeme who zooms in and out to offer advice and hear gossip.  In addition, we meet seemingly dozens of other passers-by like a beggar who refuses a coin in his cup (“Hey, I don’t work on Sundays”) and a young fruit stand guy who all but makes love to three figs before reluctantly selling them. 

In the end, Amélie: A New Musical is a delightful, heart-warming travelogue of one girl’s journey, powered by her own incredible imagination to find the love she is so hesitant to accept but so desperately wants.  This is a trip audiences of all ages are rightly lining up to get on board at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Rating: 5 E’s

Amélie: A New Musical is extended at Berkeley Repertory Company, through October 11, 2015.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 510 647-2949, Tue-Sun 12 to 7 p.m.

Photo Credits: Kevin Berne

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