The formidable success of Amélie the film looms large over Amélie the Musical, according to the latter’s director, Michael Fentiman. “Any stage production is in some respects competing with memories of the film,” he says.
This show is in fact competing with the winning French whimsy of the 2001 original at two removes: Craig Lucas, Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen’s adaptation has already been staged in the US and has now been significantly reworked for its UK premiere.
Audrey Brisson plays Amélie, the unloved child who grows up to be a kind-hearted introvert and waitress, wandering around Paris and bringing joy to people’s lives. The characters around her – bar staff and customers, strangers and neighbours – double as folksy French musicians who look like bohemians and buskers with their flutes, accordions, violins and double basses.
The stage is drenched in sepia light to conjure both a faded Gallic romance and an intimate sense of cabaret with two beaten-up pianos on either side and, occasionally, a delicious edge of bawdiness to the book and lyrics. The mezzanine stage never changes its scenery but rearranges to switch from the bar to Amélie’s bedroom and the outside world – the train station and photo-booth at which she spots Nino (Chris Jared), who works in a sex shop and becomes the distant object of her romantic desires. A revolving cubicle becomes a portal to other people’s homes and lives.
There is surreal imagination to it all: the young, unhappy Amélie – caught between cold, uncommunicative parents – is played by a puppet and while this is charmingly theatrical, we feel distanced from Amélie’s inner trauma as a result.
The first half of the show is high on imagination but low on emotional connection. Messé’s musical score is strong but initially drowns out the book. Brisson has a big, beautiful voice that is full of feeling but in every other respect she is more a function of the plot than its centre; her kind interventions into other people’s lives reveal their stories rather than her own. Physically confident and a harder-edged character than Audrey Tautou’s doe-eyed original, there is a circus quality to her performance.
It takes a while for the various elements to come together, but it is simply spectacular when they do. By the second half, the pace slows and the mix of comedy, surrealism and spectacle cohere: the book is more prominent, the score and lyrics are affecting, the inner life of Amélie is spot-lit and the emotional drama is raised to a crescendo when we reach the prolonged silence that surrounds Amélie and Nino’s first kiss. There are some stupendously imaginative scenes too, infused with warmth, darkness and humour in equal parts, such as Amélie’s imagining of her own funeral prompted by the breaking news from her TV set of Princess Diana’s death.
The production corrects all of its earlier imperfections – Brisson and Jared’s romance is weighted with emotional resonance. The musicians perform with a dynamism, virtuosity and dazzlingly unified oneness. There are crafty nods to iconic scenes in the film (Amélie cracking into a crème brûlée, for example) that are said in passing rather than acted out.
It is, by the end, a triumph of adaptation, setting itself apart from the film to become its very own magical thing.