The idea of a picture frame and what it entails — coloring within the lines, what is seen and what is hidden, as well as the voyeuristic act of capturing an image itself — figure prominently in Amélie, A New Musical, created by Craig Lucas (book), Daniel Messé (music and lyrics) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics). Adapted from the 2001 movie that first catapulted Audrey Tautou into the public consciousness (outside of France, anyway), the plot of the musical hews closely to the cinematic original. However, the way in which it captures the lively imagination of its titular character is uniquely theatrical.
When the Jean-Pierre Jeunet film came out, it was noted for its unique visual style, bringing us a heightened version of Paris seen through a jewel-toned filter with innovative visual effects. Onstage, director Pam McKinnon has translated that vision into a rainbow-hued toy box that actualizes Amélie Poulain’s whimsical fantasies through projections, puppets and props.
The opening number features a daisy chain of character introductions, which underscores their interconnectedness while also introducing the picture frame motif. We learn that young Amélie (sweetly precocious Savvy Crawford) is a girl who marches to the beat of a different drummer, so her mother must home-school her. But once Amélie loses her mother to death by falling Belgian tourist, she lives with a father who withdraws from life. We then jump forward to her leaving home at 18 and becoming a waitress in Montmartre.
Dressed in ladybug hues (a clever choice by costume designer David Zinn), adult Amélie (Hamilton alumna Phillipa Soo) toils away in the Café des 2 Moulins, which houses an eccentric cast of characters. Then one day, by accident, she discovers a box of memorabilia hidden in her apartment and is determined to return it to its owner. His happiness at being reunited with childhood memories motivates Amélie to become the Good Samaritan of Paris.
Soo’s expressiveness delightfully channels the idiosyncrasies of the young Frenchwoman with the big heart, even though her full vocal range and power are showcased only occasionally. Adam Chanler-Berat, as a fellow dreamer for whom Amélie falls, pairs well with her as he embodies Nino’s earnest longing and impulsivity. The remainder of the cast is refreshingly more diverse than that of the film, both ethnically and in terms of breaking from the traditional musical theater “type.”
McKinnon’s strength in crafting Amélie’s journey is her ability to blend live action with Peter Nigrini’s stunning projection design, notable for its seamless transitions between images and animated details that wink at our heroine’s quirkiness. Those projections are enhanced by the prismatic palette of Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting, and are provided a canvas in Zinn’s set, featuring stacks of bureaus that angularly frame the action in an offbeat manner. In numbers such as “World’s Best Friend” and “The Blue Arrow Suite,” the marriage of staging, projections, lights, set and props is magical.
The songs in the show at times feel like a musical theater take on Barenaked Ladies or They Might Be Giants ditties, especially in their stream-of-consciousness style lyrics. And while you probably won’t leave the theater humming any one of them, numbers such as the charmingly lyrical “Girl With the Glass,” the zany “Goodbye, Amélie” and the amusing “No Place Like Gnome” are plenty of fun.
GO! Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Jan. 15. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org. Runtime: 1 hours and 45 minutes (no intermission).