If the musical version of Amélie, which opened Monday night on Broadway, proves anything, it is that what makes eccentrically charming sense on screen can translate into something much less charming—and much more incoherent—on stage.
You can see the temptation to mount it: the movie was an international success. The young woman who subsumes herself in doing good deeds for others, while also indulging in bizarre cat-and-mouse games with a potential love interest on the streets of Paris—while also isolating herself from love and true connection—is a bewitching, picaresque heroine.
The 2001 film, starring Audrey Tautou, inhabited a compelling orbit of oddness and the hyper-real—Paris bathed in a honeyed glow—constructed by its visionary director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It benefited from all of modern cinema’s box of tricks—remember when Amélie dissolved into a puddle of glinting water?—and the camera was forever in Tautou’s enquiring, mischievous face.
That’s a problem, because Amélie is a complicated character, and whereas the movie animated an intriguing nexus that celebrated Amélie’s goodness while reveling in her more sinister and disquieting side, this flatter (in all senses) stage version merely makes her out to be merely odd.
The Paris of the stage design—set in 1997—is not a Paris a visitor would recognize, or even one a visitor would idealize. Instead, it is an off-kilter mish-mash of higgledy-piggledy apartment blocks, a bridge, and all colored a weird pastel—the same color and feel as the not-Manhattan apartment of Monica and Rachel in Friends, the show Amélie watches when she gets home.
The café where Amélie works has been made a lot French-cuter than that of the film, with its racks of cigarettes behind the till. There are some neat flourishes: when the residents of stage-Paris are having sex, lots of doors open and close. There is a lot of frantic activity, but you never feel a convincing swoosh of the city’s streets.
In the background as Amélie tries to find her own purpose, plays the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, another famous do-gooder. Amélie looks upon her good deeds and how she is remembered and lionized, and appears inspired.
But how and why? It’s unclear. And all the bizarre stuff Amélie did on film, which somehow made surreal sense, becomes merely irritating on stage.
Even if you haven’t seen the 2001 film, there are grave impediments to enjoying this show. You may well raise your eyebrows at the moment Amélie takes it upon herself to “help” a blind man, but removing his cane from him, throwing his beggar’s cup away, and totally disorientating him by swirling him past a new set of urban landmarks. Then she leaves him stranded, a new world that she is introducing him to. It’s supposed to be charming. It looks horrifying.
You will wonder why Amélie was so withdrawn in the first place, and why she has such a beef with her parents. Her dad, an emotionally constipated doctor, who is left bereft after the death of her mother, a stern teacher. (Her mother’s death, crushed under a suicidal fat gentleman, is a weird piece of staging involving a blow-up figure.)
But her parents, at least as presented on stage, are not bad. Quirky, eccentric, a little sharp—but nothing that would merit Amélie’s fiercely cherished arrested development.
From the beginning (as a little girl she is played by Savvy Crawford), Amélie lives in her own world—represented, for example, by an actor holding a gyrating puppet of a goldfish (her first intense attachment).
But the reasons for her intense estrangement for the world, her beadily kept distances from those around her, is never adequately explained.
This becomes seriously bizarre with the never-ending saga of the scrapbook. This is the object that Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), the geekily handsome stranger, leaves somewhere with lots of torn-up pictures inside, and which Amélie kidnaps and then keeps, while baiting him to find it and her. One figure inside the scrapbook is a particular mystery.
This should be tantalizing, but it is not charming in any way. The biggest laughs the show gets is when Nino or another character queries Amélie’s behavior directly: why all this chasing around? Their puzzlement matches ours.
Similarly, the moment Amélie takes it upon herself to kidnap and never return her father’s beloved garden gnome is another head-scratcher. She wants her father to move on with his life, she wants to do something good, but this like many of her acts appear—unintentionally—at best selfish and at worst a little unhinged.
The perhaps too-obvious answer to all her shenanigans is that Amélie seeks to control everything around her, because nothing must violate the codes of her own inner world, the ramparts of which have stayed totally in place since she was a young girl.
To protect herself, and to impose herself on the world, she will do all she can to control it. Love, falling in love, and finding a connection, is the great disruptor—and this she cannot do, hence making Nino run hither and thither for the damn scrapbook.
There’s also a truly bizarre moment when suddenly a figure who is supposed to be Elton John appears to belt out a song—but this figure neither looks nor sounds like Elton John.
Much of this would be moot if the songs underscored any of this bonkers behavior memorably. Sadly, as expertly sung as they are, they do not imprint themselves, except towards the show’s denouement, when—too late—it suddenly coheres. Soo and Chanler-Berat do both a brave and brilliant job not just singing stirringly, but also anchoring a toppling and unwieldy jigsaw of a show.
Amélie does not fall apart. It is not a visible disaster. But with no tunes left in your head, and no new depths explored of Amélie’s bamboozling character, the question you are left with is a sadly harsh one: why did they bother?
Amélie is at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Book tickets here.