Based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 French fairytale of a movie, the musical “Amelie” follows a reclusive young Parisian waitress who bestows random acts of kindness on strangers, engineers opportunities for happiness and romance for acquaintances, and eventually finds love herself.
With a melodic score by Daniel Messe and Nathan Tysen, and a clever, unconventional book by Craig Lucas, the show premiered at Berkeley Rep in 2015 and opened on Broadway in 2017. It quickly closed and was nominated for no Tony Awards.
The reason, according to the Chicago Tribune, is that the musical “dances on a tight-rope stretched between quirk and charm.” Newsday called the work “weird.” “Surreal” and “too precious” were Variety’s critical takeaways. And every major review compared the stage production with the Academy Award-nominated cult film, found it wanting, and called out the disappointing discrepancies.
Mercury Theatre’s artistic director Pierre-Jacques Brault knows full well that the stage is a different medium than the screen, and welcomes the differences. And his company thrives on all things quirky, charming, weird, surreal and precious.
Who else would stage the musical “My Son Pinocchio” and emphasize the power of all the authority figures – the toymaker Geppetto, the gypsy Stromboli, the sinister ruler of Pleasure Island, and Jiminy Cricket – by casting them with larger-than-life carnival puppets?
Who else would reimagine “Peter Pan: The Musical Adventure” with Tinkerbell played by a ballerina rather than a laser beam and replace Peter’s flight apparatus with creative choreography to simulate his weightlessness?
What other theater company opts for intriguing variations of classic works like “Pinocchio” and “Peter Pan” rather than the classic works themselves?
And so it is no surprise that Mercury’s Ohio premiere production of “Amelie” embraces the show’s eccentric characters, finds the essence and ample heart of their story, and excels in imaginative stagecraft – including a puppet to play a young Amelie – to give it life and fill it with fantasy. And, under Brault’s direction/choreography, this production delights in the small pleasures found in the musical’s script and score.
It all takes place in scenic designer David McQuillen Robertson’s exquisite two-tier, pastel-colored Gare De Lyson metro station that – with a quick shift in furnishings, some clever lighting design by Michael Jarret, and animated projections by Patrick Ciamacco – becomes the Two Windmills Cafe, assorted Paris locations, and Amelie’s small Montmartre apartment.
Populating the stage is a superb cast featuring Gracie Keener as a twinkling, absolutely delightful, and fully vested Amelie Poulain. Her gorgeous voice is made to order, in tone and temperament, for the solos she sings – particularly “Times Are Hard For Dreamers” – as well as the ones she shares – such as the beautifully rendered “Stay” – with the charming and silver-throated Benson Anderson as Nino, Amelie’s love interest.
They are surrounded by actors who nicely flesh out supporting roles drawn from simple descriptors, such as a hypochondriac waitress (Aubrey Fink), a frustrated writer (Trey Gilpin), neurotic parents (Brian Marshall and Jennifer Myor), a healer (Neely Gevaart), a former circus performer (Kelvette Beacham), a slow-witted clerk (Nick Grimsic), a blind beggar (Joshua Klaber Higgins), a fragile painter (J. Michael Pressimone), and a disgruntled patron (Jonathan Bova). They also play a range of characters from Amelie’s imagination, including Elton John (Gilpin) and a world traveling garden gnome (Higgins), during the show’s more fanciful musical numbers.
In this revised version of the Broadway production, which first appeared on London’s West Side in 2019, there are still elements that remain faithful to the film – a spiteful greengrocer, a scene in a sex shop – that stand out as incongruous. And, in this opening night performance, there are some clumsy scene changes, French accents that are still works in progress (kudos for the effort), and some poor sound mixing that sacrifices lyrics to an outstanding 11-piece orchestra under Matthew Croft’s direction.
Still, the rarely performed “Amelie” and this production of it in a safe and socially distanced theater, are not to be missed. If the romance does not have you tearing up by intermission, the rich harmonies that rise to the rafters – a sound that has been absent and sorely missed this past year and a half – most certainly will.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. He was named best in Ohio for reviews/criticism in the Press Club of Cleveland’s 2021 All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards.