Once upon a time there was a little girl with a great big imagination. Her parents were unloving and aloof and her only friend, Fluffy the Goldfish, was dumped unceremoniously into the Seine. Very much alone, Amélie turned inward to a life of the mind where nuns had the heads of crocodiles and her fish (for as long as he lasted) talked back to her. After her mother died and she grew up, Amélie moved to Paris where she became a waitress in a Montmartre cafe and continued in her solitary fantasy-driven ways, spying on her neighbors, determined to make the world a better place, one random good deed at a time.
And that’s just be beginning of it. Playwright Craig Lucas has adapted the charming 2001 French film “Amélie” (highly popular in the U.S.), transformed it with the songs of Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen and brought it to the Berkeley Rep stage in what is sure to be the first stop on its journey. This show is too good to fade into regional obscurity. It has a lot going for it, pleasant if not memorable music by Messé of the band Hem, delightful ensemble performances — even a cameo appearance by Elton John (or a reasonably hilarious wannabe).
Led by the lovely and talented Samantha Barks (Eponine in the film version of “Les Miz”), “Amélie’s” cast doubles and triples in roles ranging from fruit sellers to the elderly painter across the way, to her bizarre parents to the equally bizarre denizens of the cafe where she works and the staff of a sex shop where our heroine finds herself in pursuit of her one true love. Occasionally the cast morphs into a classical Chorus, which relates and comments on the events of the story. Nine-year-old Savvy Crawford plays Amelie as a child, and very well too.
There are no bogus French accents or accordions in evidence. What we have instead is a truly inventive set that uses frames and doors and objects lowered from the flies to suggest a Paris both familiar and mundane. With the aid of Peter Nigrini’s projections, David Zinn’s set design segues smoothly from an apartment to a fruit stand to a Metro station and Notre Dame in the blink of an eye. The sex shop where Amélie’s love interest works and its adjacent peep show may be the most clever transition of them all. Zinn also did the costumes, which are fine, although there is not a black and white shirt or red skirt in sight (except for one very “Amélie”-conscious audience member on opening night.
The love story — in which Amélie pursues a “Stay Where You Are, Don’t Come Closer but Don’t Move Way” (the title of the courtship song and the theme of the romance) — has been tweaked a bit from the film version and, coming near the end of the hour-and-45-minute intermission-less show, feels a little rushed. But so much else is right with “Amélie” one can afford to be generous. Director Pam MacKinnon (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” Tony Award, plus “Clybourne Park,” “A Delicate Balance” and “The Heidi Chronicles” on Broadway) has marshaled her disparate forces to give us a fast, funny and touching theatrical experience.
Outstanding in an outstanding cast are, in addition to Barks, Adam Chanler-Berat as Nino, her suitor, the trio of Carla Duren, Alyse Alan Louis and Maria-Christina Oliveras as the women in the cafe and Randy Blair in a number of hilarious cameos. Kimberly Grigsby conducts the onstage band.
“Amélie, the Musical” is a big show that celebrates small lives. Something worth singing about.