Calculus and Magic – “Amélie” @ Ahmanson Theatre

Amélie - A New Musical (Ahmanson)It is rare to find a musical that has, at its heart, calculus and mathematics. Yet the magical new musical Amélie, currently in previews and officially opening at the end of the week at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), does. Amélie is a musical that charmed and enthralled me, and had me smiling from beginning to end — so much so that I am considering seeing it a second time (a rarely) so that I could catch some of the magic that I missed.

Amélie is based on the French 2001 Romantic Comedy starring Audrey Tautou, about a shy imaginative girl who changes the lives of those around her for the better. The film, which I saw ages ago, had a magical quality that almost made it slightly surrealistic (you’ll see the same surrealism in the TV show Pushing Daisies, which used Amélie as a model). In the film, Amélie rarely speaks but we see her inner thoughts, and inner thoughts are just the thing to musicalize.

But first, the calculus. As the musical relates, when Amélie is young, her parents mistakenly believe she has a heart condition and choose to home-school her. Her mother teaches her Zeno’s Paradox, which is the notion that one can never go from point A to point B, because of the infinite sequence of going half-way there means you never make it all the way. As a result of this, Amélie uses the paradox as an excuse to never get close to people, because she believes she can never actually be close.

The story told in the musical is roughly the story told in the movie, with some slight reworkings. You can get a better idea of the story by looking at the Wikipedia page for the musical, but note that the synopsis there is of the Berkeley Rep (FB) version. This is a production on the way to Broadway, and there have been reworkings since Berkeley Rep. In particular, a number of story elements from the movie have been restored, and Amélie has been given more songs to highlight her inner thinking and motivation.

Where as the movie used special effects to achieve its magic, the theatrical production uses a mixture of traditional theatrical stagecraft and projections to recreate magic on the stage. This includes an integrative approach to the ensemble, use of puppets, use of set tricks and lighting tricks, combined with effective projections. The net effect is a delight for the eyes, and astonishment for the heart. The clever direction of Pam MacKinnon (FB) and choreography of Sam Pinkelton (FB) combine with the theatrical stagecraft of the production team and the talent of the performers to create something that had me spellbound. I’ll note that this starts even before the show does, look at the opening projection very carefully, and wait….

The version we saw was a one-act, and the songs and scenes were not listed in the program. This is appropriate for a production that may be subject to change before Broadway (but it is hell on a reviewer, especially one like me that might not get publicity material). I found that the productions pace was good, with a particular drive that kept my attention. My wife felt that it was a little long, and could use an intermission. There was one point that I felt would be a good intermission point — right after Amélie runs away after first finding Nemo (heh, heh, Finding Nemo). I wonder if the producers felt that interrupted the drive, or that it left too little material in Act I or Act II. I’d suggest that the audience is enthralled with the character by that point, and will return to see what happens — plus there are a few remaining themes from the movie that could be integrated.

The performance of the lead, Phillipa Soo, supported by Savvy Crawford (FB) as the younger Amélie, was spectacular. She captured the playfullness as well as the enigmatic nature of Audrey Tautou‘s Amélie, which combined with her wonderful singing voice to provide a truly captivating performance. This was a role made for these two young ladies.

As for the rest of the performers, I’m lumping them together as the emsemble, although in the program some are listed as only one character. This is because, at points, they all do various background stuff. Recently, I’ve been listening to the Ensemblist podcast as it has been going through the changing role of the ensemble in the arc of Pulitzer Prize winning plays. This show is clearly in the mold of the Rent and Hamilton ensembles: the actors play specific characters, but they also fill in to give a fullness to the piece, complementing each other in anonymous or small characters in addition to their named roles. This tier of performers were: Adam Chanler-Berat (FB) [Nino], Tony Sheldon [Collignon / Dufayel], Alison Cimmet (FB) [Philomene / Amandine]; Heath Calvert (FB) [Lucien / Lug / Mysterious Man], Alyse Alan Louis (FB) [Georgette / Sylvie], Paul Whitty (FB) [Joseph / Fluffy], Manoel Felciano (FB) [Bretodeaux / Raphael], Harriett D. Foy (FB) [Suzanne], Maria-Christina Oliveras (FB) [Gina], David Andino (FB) [Blind Beggar / Garden Gnome], and Randy Blair (FB) [Hipolito]. Emily Afton (FB) (Dance Captain) and Jacob Keith Watson (FB) were the swings.

Overall, it is hard to highlight individual performance with the lack of a songlist. Suffice it to say that all work together to create an indescribable, beautiful whole. This is truly a holistic show, where the actors just come together magically to tell a story.

As noted earlier, movement design is by Sam Pinkelton (FB), assisted by Associate Choreographer Katie Spelman (FB) and Dance Captain Emily Afton (FB). It is hard to say there is formal dance in this production; certainly, there  is not the traditional theatrical dancing chorus. There is, however, beautiful movement from the opening piece that tells the story of of Amélie’s birth, and the overall movement contributes to the magical whole.

So far, although this is a musical, I haven’t mentioned the writing credits. Amélie features a book by Craig Lucas, with music by Daniel Messé (FB) and lyrics by Nathan Tysen (FB) and Daniel Messé (FB). I found the music to be strong and driving — music that had a good driving energy and was fun to listen to. Lacking the list of songs and having only heard the pieces once, it is hard to identify something specific. I will say that there were precious few slow ballads, and nothing that had me looking at my watch. Orchestrations were by Bruce Coughlin (FB), and musical direction was by Kimberly Grigsby. The orchestra consisted of Kimberly Grigsby (Conductor / Keyboard), Jeff Driskill (FB) (Woodwinds), Adriana Zoppo (FB) (Violin/Viola), Amy Wilkins (Harp), Paul Viapiano (FB) (Guitar), Ed Smith (FB) (Percussion), Ken Wild (FB) (Bass), Robert Payne (Trombone / Contractor). Alby Potts (FB) was the Associate Conductor.  The orchestra provided good sound, but I missed the real full orchestra of last week’s Wonderful Town at the Chandler.

Turning to the production and creative side of the equation. The imaginative scenic and costume design was by David Zinn (FB), which combined all sorts of stuff to create the magical world Amélie inhabited. This was augmented by the lighting design of Jane Cox and Mark Barton and the projection design of Peter Nigrini, which completed the magic. The puppet design of Amanda Villalobos was great, in particular Fluffy the fish. Wig Design was by Charles G. LaPointe (FB), and were suitably imaginative. Sound design was by Kai Harada (FB); it blended into the background as it should. Vocal arrangements were by  Kimberly Grigsby and Daniel Messé (FB). Rounding out the production credits: James Harker (Production Stage Manager), Jim Carnahan CSA and Stephen Kopel CSA (Casting), Cherie B. Tay (Stage Manager), Lora K. Powell (Assistant Stage Manager).

Amélie continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through January 15. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. You’ll be enchanted.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB).

Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:  Next week brings  The King and I at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). December concludes with an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

Turning to 2017, January starts with a Southern California Games Day, followed by Zanna Don’t at the Chromolume Theatre (FB) on January 16. We may get tickets to Claudio Quest at the Chance Theatre (FB) on January 28. February 2017 gets back to being busy: with Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.