Phillipa Soo Sparks Sweet, Modest Tale

Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo in Craig Lucas’ “Amélie,” with music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen, and directed by Pam MacKinnon. | JOAN MARCUS
Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo in Craig Lucas’ “Amélie,” with music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen, and directed by Pam MacKinnon. | JOAN MARCUS

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The new musical “Amélie” would be perfect for a first date. It’s endearing, not too demanding, and with the magnificent Phillipa Soo in the title role stages a charm crusade that is nigh irresistible.

That may seem like damning with faint praise, but “Amélie” makes little pretense of having big ambitions. Rather, it seems designed to divert and enchant on a small scale. It’s a gem, albeit an imperfect one.

I had never seen the movie on which the musical is based, so the story of a shy, young woman who lives to do good in the world while not drawing any attention to herself was new to me. As a child, Amélie lost her mother, lived in an overly protective world, and used her outsized imagination as a coping mechanism. As an adult, she moves to Paris, works in a bistro, and quietly helps people. Whether finding ways to instill confidence in a fledgling writer or urging on a tentative relationship, she stays well in the background unknown and unacknowledged, living a solitary life. Her neurosis (though that seems such a strong word for this gentle, well-meaning creature) is so internalized that when she is confronted with the potential for real love, she’s terrified and pretty much immobilized. To a greater or lesser degree, many of us can relate to that.

The story is told in a series of set pieces that establish the character. Ultimately, she encounters an artist, Nino, and throughout the course of trying to get his lost work back to him, falls in love. How Amélie conquers her fear and takes a chance on being vulnerable consumes the second half of the show. As I said, great for a first date.

Craig Lucas’ book captures the sweetness of the tale, though it takes a while to get going; the exposition is complicated. The music by Daniel Messé is pleasant if not memorable, but the lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen are often extremely clever and insightful, their seeming innocence delightfully belied by sophisticated rhyme and meter.

Any reservations one might have about the structure of the show, however, are more than compensated for by Soo’s performance. She plays Amélie as a gamine with a pixie-like charm and sense of humor that offset her darker side. She sings with delicacy and flawless technique that send chills of pleasure up one’s spine. Adam Chanler-Berat is perfectly cast as Nino. He has an appealing presence that is part innocence, part passion and manages to be both challenging and non-threatening to Amélie. If anyone can bring this bird to light, it’s him. Chanler-Berat has an excellent voice and an inherent earnestness that work throughout. The rest of the company fills a variety of roles very well.

The sets and costumes by David Zinn evoke Paris, though the show as written doesn’t seem too intensely French, presumably by design. Pam MacKinnon has directed with delicacy and humor appropriate for this tiny tale.

Clocking in at an hour and 50 minutes without intermission, the show knows not to overstay its welcome. In a world of muscular musicals, the delicacy of “Amélie is decidedly welcome — but much more and it might start to cloy. That said, when Amélie is finally able to experience a little of the joy she brings to others, it’s a hard heart indeed that would remain untouched.

AMÉLIE | Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49.50-$169.50 at ticketmaster.com or 866-745-3000 | One hr., 50 mins., no intermission