Whimsical and quirky, beguiling and beautiful in so many ways. Amélie the Musical, at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, is an exhilarating breath of air.
Evolved from the hugely successful movie of 2001, the musical version has all the same charm, humour and lovable humanity. On stage it’s a kind of total immersion with no preamble: the very first action has a rattling, whooshing Metro train transporting us to the heart of Paris. And it’s a transport of absolute delight.
Act One sees Amélie tiptoeing through a Parisian landscape full of life and character. In the title role Audrey Brisson is a gamine figure, a tiny Parisian sparrow with the vocal power of a Piaf – but, above all, with the endearing, irresistibly likeable persona that captures the character and captivates the audience. She was born to play Amélie.
In the tight dimensions of the Devonshire Park stage, we are led on a weaving dance through every characterful corner of the capital, and a tumble of wonderful, eccentric characters: the artist who has been painting the same copy Renoir for 20 years, the enigmatic guy who collects discarded images from a photo-booth – more of him later – and the cranky greengrocer or the cafe owner who worked in a circus.
Eccentric, often bohemian, essentially Gallic, this story could not work in London, Berlin or New York. Playing Broadway in 2017, it certainly didn’t bomb, but it may not have quite resonated as the show now does in Europe. Designer Madeleine Girling has created an Art Nouveau influenced set, simply glowing with the rich reds of Montmartre and Pigalle. With the tug of a lampshade our heroine flies, literally, up to her tiny flat hidden behind a great Gothic clock face. Great design, fusing imagination with technical brilliance.
It helps to have seen the movie, for the references are many, and you may – especially in Act One – be a little bewildered. Liberated goldfish, globetrotting garden gnomes. Relax, sit back and revel in it – and in the end the story comes together beautifully.
Emerging from a sheltered childhood with neurotic parents, cleverly related through a child-sized puppet, Amélie finds it hard to strike a conversation, never mind a relationship. She connects with this teeming community through little acts of kindness, some random but most very purposeful. She plays matchmaker to a couple who never communicate across the cafe. She reunites a decades-old memory box with its equally elderly owner. With darting eyes and shy smiles, laying her little trails of breadcrumbs, Amélie is the ultimate secret philanthropist. And in forging the happiness of others, she also finally secures her own happiness, and a kind of shared fragility, with that guy with the photo album – Danny Mac’s handsomely bashful Nino.
The lilting lyrics of Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messe are brought evocatively to life in Craig Lucas’s score. No trite ditties, and just sparing use of that very Parisian accordion sound; oh, and an awesome tongue-in-cheek Elton John pastiche, shimmeringly delivered by Caolan McCarthy.
The entire 16-strong company are accomplished actor-musicians, weaving a fabulous tapestry of sound. Their seamless movement on stage is echoed in the music: flutes and fiddles, pianos and cellos. And beautifully blended singing, warm and organic and minor-key, from a flawless ensemble whose love for the show shines through.
Indeed, a story of this ambience and style would always be material for a musical. Distinctive and never derivative, Amélie the Musical does have some influences. A story often told in animated, eager recitative sometimes has the ring of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and the driving folksy ensemble might easily have migrated from that very likeable Irish musical Once. But accept no substitutes: this show stands alone, distinctive, charming and utterly irresistible. The world needs more Amélies.
The Herald tends not to give star ratings: they can be a rather crude means of calibrating a production. But now and again, we make an exception. Amélie? Cinq étoiles!
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