Berkeley Rep stages a bright new musical

Amelie sings!  Amelie rules!

The new musical at Berkeley Rep, Amelie, is a glorious triumph, so I feel safe making a confession.  When the movie it’s based on came out in 2001, I hated it.  I saw it at a critic’s preview in San Francisco, where pretty much everyone adored it.

“This is the sort of French movie that gives French movies a bad name,” I said.

I can confess this for another reason: Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone’s admission in program notes to a long-time distaste for musicals.

Have we both mellowed?  No, we were won over.  The show’s creators, to whom we should fall on our knees in gratitude, haven’t attempted to reproduce the movie.  They’ve instead rethought it in winning theatrical terms.  What was overcute and overdone in the film has become brisk and propulsive.

Running just an hour and three quarters without intermission, Amelie one of the most pleasurable 105 minutes I’ve spent in any theater.  If it isn’t bound for big time Broadway  success, I’ll eat my ticket.

The story’s theme arrives early, in the surprising shape of ancient Greek philosopher Zeno’s famous paradox, asserting that no matter how earnestly we try to reach a person or thing, we can’t because with each step we only get half way there.  The child Amelie learns it from her mother.  She’s prepared to believe it, too, because though her parents do what they think is right for her, they’re self-absorbed and distant; she can’t reach them or they her.

Amelie grows into an attractive but aimless young woman, and when we meet her again she’s working in a Parisian bistro, The Two Windmills.  She’s unattached—she hasn’t hooked up with anyone yet—and she’s bemused by her state.  Something is wrong, she can feel it, but what should she do?

She needs a purpose, and she finds it in a chance encounter in front of a photograph-yourself booth in a railroad station.  An odd young man accidentally leaves his portfolio behind, and she sets out to find him so she can return it.  Is the portfolio her only motivation?  Isn’t her attraction to him a factor, too?

Can she prove Zeno wrong?

Her subsequent pursuit is a picaresque adventure with amusing stops along the way, most notably in the crowded apartment of an old man who paints copies of Renoir’s “Boating Party” over and over again.  Her child-self pops us now and then to guide her, and her pals at The Two Windmills help out, too, while they engage in affairs and career advancements that Amelie, with her Pollyanna heart, slyly facilitates—she may be naive, but she’s no dope.

The only problem in writing about Amelie is figuring out who to credit for its brisk charm.  The answer seems to be everyone.  Craig Lucas fashioned the supple, witty movie adaptation, Daniel Messe wrote the melodic score (I was humming a tune as I departed), and he and Nathan Tyson wrote the smart lyrics.  David Zinn did the sets and inventive costumes, Jane Cox the lighting, Kai Harada the sound, Peter Nigrini the projections.  Sam Pinkleton designed the musical staging and choreography, and the band is led by Kimberley Grigsby.

Director Pam MacKinnon blends all these talents with a sure hand.  Though it’s brand new, the show has the feel of a work that’s been running so long that all the bugs have been ironed out.

The cast, is winning—everyone seems to be having a good time.  Nine-year-old Savvy Crawford is irresistible as young Amelie, and as older Amelie, Samantha Barks combines diffidence and charm with a strong sweet voice.  Adam Chandler-Berat plays her young man.  They’re wonderfully abetted by David Andino, Randy Blair, Alison Cimmet, Carla Duren, John Hickok, Alyse Alan Louis, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Tony Sheldon, Perry Sherman and Paul Whitty.

A musical with a refreshingly light touch, Amelie plays at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater until October 4th, followed in the company’s new-season roster by another musical, The Hypocrite’s Pirates of Penzance.  For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit