Wednesday 10 July 2019

Amélie The Musical

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
9th July, 2019

‘When a finger is pointing up to the sky,
 only a fool looks at the finger’

When Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie premiered in 2001 it catapulted European cinema back into the mainstream and made a worldwide star of lead actor Audrey Tautou. The tale of a quirky, kind, yet socially withdrawn young woman (and a side cast of equally kooky characters) captured the hearts of many filmgoers thanks to Jeunet’s unique sense of humour and his ingenious employment of magic realism. As one of my all-time favourite films I was parts excited, intrigued and nervous about a musical adaptation. Some film-to-stage adaptations work wonders (Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot, Hairspray), while others leave something to be desired (Strictly Ballroom was a big disappointment), and following a less-than-stellar performance on Broadway, I approached Michael Fentiman’s new UK production of Amélie with antsy trepidation. Long story short, I needn’t have worried. Fentiman conjures all the phantasmagorical splendour of the original, while Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen’s honeyed score elevates the story in its melancholy highs.

Craig Lucas’ book perhaps skimps on plot in favour of Messé and Tysen’s character-driven songs that are rich in imagery and near modernist-like lyricism. Beloved characters from the film are cut or condensed, and less time is spent on the mechanics of Amélie’s mission to spread joy amongst strangers and friends. One of my favourite subplots regarding a long-dead husbands ‘missing’ letter to his jilted wife is relegated to only a few lines here, and I missed the whimsical recital of proverbs during Gina and Nino’s heart-to-heart. However, these omissions do little to detract from the charms of Craig, Messé and Tyson’s work. In several cases the adaptation even enriches the source material: Amélie’s childhood and relationship with her parents is fleshed out (with some gorgeous puppetry, might I add); the introduction of Zeno’s Paradox is a beautiful metaphor for Alie (and Nino’s) anxious hesitation and socio-philosophical bond; and Jeunet’s brief ventures into surrealism are expanded here into full-on hallucinogenic trips - Collignon’s comeuppance features a hysteria of dancing figs, and Amélie is given the Princess Di treatment with her very own Elton John musical tribute.

Messé’s music doesn’t quite eclipse the iconic bright minimalism of Yann Tiersen’s film score, but it’s nevertheless beautifully lilting, evoking the atmosphere of Montmartre while lending an intense depth of feeling to the show’s most emotional moments. The Bretodeau story is something of a simple plot device in the film, yet Lucas and co. place more emphasis on the restorative power and feeling of Amélie’s actions. Messé and Tysen's Bretodeau ‘open the box’ leitmotif synonymises the lost and found narrative themes and amplifies all the melancholy ecstasy of memory, epiphany and the transitory illusions of time. While I hesitate to mention any particular stand-out numbers, I felt that the music’s role in the production is to wash over you, inviting you into this strange yet recognisable world, and nourish the soul. Though rarely propelling the plot in the traditional sense of musical theatre, as a mood piece, the score is intrinsic and provides a window into Amélie’s psyche.

Matching the evocative melodies is Madeleine Girling’s Parisian Jungle-type set. Within a bohemian framework of ornate railway scaffolding, pianos transform into tobacco counters, grocery stalls and sex shops, and concealed behind the great clock of Gare du Nord lies Amélie’s apartment, a cosy cubbyhole hidden away from the constraints of time. The entire creative company have laid their talents bare, yet none of it would matter if we can’t get behind the protagonist herself. Audrey Brisson was born for the role. Her Amélie is cheeky, endearing, and just sharp enough to avoid any accusations of kitschiness. Wildly expressive, yet still at the most vital of moments, Brisson has a dexterity that compels, and her voice rings crystalline as a bell above the bustle of the city streets.

Brisson receives amiable support from an excellent cast of actor-musicians, most notably Johnson Willis as Amélie’s fragile guardian angel and frustrated artist, Dufayel, and a scene-stealing turn from Caolan McCarthy as a pitch-perfect Elton John. Despite sharing little stage-time, Brisson forms a believable and sweet chemistry with Danny Mac, cast very much against type as Amelie’s introverted love-interest, Nino. The union of Amélie and Nino is probably my favourite ever screen kiss. It’s a masterclass in understatement and quiet, yet furious passion, and Brisson and Mac recreate the moment on stage with romantic tenderness and a palpable electricity that pulsates throughout the pin-drop quiet auditorium. This swoonworthy finale more than lived up to my expectations.

Charming, eccentric, whimsical, but not without bite, Amélie has made a successful film-to-stage transition. Fentiman and co. have produced a piece that indulges the senses and excites the imagination, retaining the special qualities of Jeunet’s film while incorporating a flavour of their own in which this singular world unfolds. A must-see treat that deserves all the longevity of its predecessor.

Amélie plays at the Haymarket theatre until 13th July.
For full tour dates please visit:
Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in Amelie The Musical.
Credit: Pamela Raith

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