Amelie Poulain grew up in solitude. Two tragedies mark her childhood: An emotional goodbye to her pet-slash-best-friend fish and her mother’s death after being trampled by a suicidal tourist. Since then, Amelie’s imagination becomes her sanctuary. Alone with her thoughts, she ponders questions such as, “How many couples are having an orgasm at the moment?” (The answer is 15.) After successfully returning a childhood box of keepsakes to a disgruntled middle-aged man, she becomes a do-gooder, only to find herself desiring for something more — that is to say, love.
It is difficult to envision “Amelie” without Audrey Tautou’s mischievous smile or Yann Tiersen’s beautiful soundtrack. Released in 2001, the heartfelt French film deservedly earned five Academy Award nominations. Suffice to say, the task of recreating the beloved French film into an American musical would be a challenge indeed.
Yet director Pam MacKinnon and the crew of “Amelie, a New Musical” accomplished this feat with, quite literally, flying colors. The musical’s interpretation of Amelie’s imagination is scrapbook-esque and vibrant. The people in Amelie’s life are introduced through ornate, gold-sprayed frames on wheels. Amelie’s amorous encounters with Nino, the handsome stranger, are emphasized by sparkly fuchsia pompoms and holographic hearts on sticks. When Amelie imagines her widely attended funeral, a bedazzled Elton John sings a hilarious tribute to her.
“One of the buzzwords we use constantly in rehearsal is ‘handmade,’” MacKinnon said in “Behind the Musical,” a video clip uploaded by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. “For instance, there’s a little bit of puppetry. We’re not looking for slick. We’re looking for the best parent on the block making the Halloween costume. Handmade, because it’s springing from this young woman’s imagination.”
The production was also carried to success with the stellar performance of British actress Samantha Barks, who plays Amelie. Well known for her role as Eponine in the 2012 film “Les Miserables,” Barks is a seasoned actress who plucks on heartstrings effortlessly.
Much like a schoolteacher, she sports a modest outfit — a long crimson skirt with a floral blouse to match. While her costume brings her closer to the lovable, unassuming character of Amelie, it is ultimately Barks’ storytelling talent that allows her to capture both Amelie’s deep introversion and vivid imagination.
Barks’ chemistry with Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays Amelie’s love interest Nino, is also very convincing. Vocally, they are perfect for each other — her sweet, airy tone complements Chanler-Berat’s full, warm voice. Romantically, the couple is a match made in heaven. After putting Nino through strenuous obstacles for his photo album, Amelie tentatively agrees on a date, only to deny her identity when they finally meet face to face.
Amelie’s timidity and Nino’s relentlessness keep audience members at the edge of their seats. The couple’s first kiss is tender — she first kisses his cheek, then grazes his neck. She points to her own cheek and neck. He kisses. Their lips meet. Magic happens.
But the most special thing about “Amelie, a New Musical” isn’t romance. In fact, it’s the very opposite.
“These aren’t like magnificent characters from a musical,” notes musical stager and choreographer Sam Pinkleton in another “Behind the Musical” video clip. “They’re that guy down there selling newspapers and the woman who just drove by in the van. And those people contain all the complexities of the people in a musical.”
The production’s charm comes from its mundanity. The director and cast have extracted beauty and complexity from the everyday. The characters are relatable — a painfully shy girl who longs for love, a widower who remains attached to a garden gnome that reminds him of his wife and a bitter ex-lover who can’t move on. Accordingly, the production asks simple yet difficult questions: How do we allow ourselves to love? How do we let go? How do we move on?
For the diehard Francophile, the chic and magical sway of Paris becomes lost in translation. The musical is not even inherently French, except for French names and a fish with an ironic French accent. The characters are purged of romantic notions.
Still, “Amelie, a New Musical” deserves utmost praise for its raw depiction of human relationships. Put simply, “Amelie” is real. Audiences will laugh and they will cry. They will fall in love with the its humble yet theatrical charm.
“Amelie, a New Musical” is playing at the Roda Theatre through Oct.11.
Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected].