“What wins in the end is the magic and the music, the players and the playing, and the escapism and the optimism”
The huge success of the film, “Amélie” in 2001 made an international star of its young, gamine lead; Audrey Tatou who played the waitress in a Montmartre café. Soon, the café itself enjoyed similar popularity, fast becoming a tourist spot on the Parisian landscape. On a smaller scale the same could be said of “Amélie the Musical” and its impact on Audrey Brisson; except that Brisson has already carved out a unique and quirky name for herself on the world stage. From a distance, the two Audreys might bear a resemblance, but up close there is no denying Brisson’s own identity and striking portrayal of Amélie Poulin, the eccentric waitress around whom this whimsical tales revolves.
Audrey Brisson both leads and is led by a truly impressive line-up of actor-musicians. It doesn’t matter if you are familiar with the film. You can instantly detach yourself from any preconceptions as you become immersed in Michael Fentiman’s production that is a perfect mix of reality and imagination. The film’s underlying but overriding narrative is replaced by an ensemble cast who share and celebrate the oddities and enigmas of life. The first musical to reopen in the West End, it is a breath of fresh air that helps us forget the past fourteen months. Like the title character we are urged to look beyond the drab reality into a world of possibilities.
Unintentionally in the spirit of the times, Amélie is deprived of human interaction, stuck in a bubble of loneliness. Whether she created it herself, or whether it was a result of her overprotective, erratic and neurotic parents, she uses the spy glass of her imagination to look around and discover that the world is made up of the same bubbles. Inspired (during a beautifully surreal moment when Caolan McCarthy belts out an elegiac anthem à la Elton John) by the death of Princess Diana, it becomes Amélie’s mission to carry out small deeds that bring happiness and romance to those lost souls. Of course, along the way she falls in love herself, with the photo-booth obsessed Nino (Chris Jared). Her own case is the hardest one to crack.
Daniel Messé’s score evokes the Paris boulevards but sweeps them up into fuller orchestrations that belong in the West End rather than the side streets. It starts with a lone accordion but builds into a sumptuous collection of strings and keys. The atmosphere is more memorable than the melodies, but the magic is sometimes broken by an intellectual grasp of the craft of these musicians as they dance with and swap instruments in perfect time to Tom Jackson Greaves’ clockwork movement.
Another star of the show is Madeleine Girling’s design; with pianos that come together and separate in a seamless waltz – morphing into street markets and sex shops; and lampshades that allow Brisson to show off her aerial background. The eccentric cleverness of the show sometimes threatens to distract the audience; but that is fleeting. What wins in the end is the magic and the music, the players and the playing, and the escapism and the optimism. Which we all need right now – and which is out there for us all to partake in. And “Amélie the Musical” is definitely the place to find it.
“The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.”
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): disappointed by someone or something previously respected or admired; disillusioned. Synonyms include; let down, fed up, cynical, disabused. There is no question as to who the ‘someone or something’ singled out in Dennis T. Giacino’s “Disenchanted! A New Musical Comedy” is, and its subversive twist on the Disney fairy tale marketing machine, if not new, is a delight to watch. The swipes at the established misogynism, racism and many other ‘isms’ inbuilt into the portrayal of our favourite princesses are much needed, and Giacino has dressed them in pastiche melodies and some ingeniously clever and witty lyrics. It could do with perhaps more subtlety and less preachiness and bitterness, but the energy and gung-ho feistiness of all involved will appeal to all genders and persuasions.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, some artistic decisions for this current digital revival make for awkward viewing, for the wrong reasons. ‘Digital’ is the key word. This is inherently a musical that needs to be witnessed live, in the flesh, a few sheets to the wind, in like-minded company. We, the audience, are being heckled and cajoled by these comic geniuses and we should be simultaneously shamed and charmed. It is cabaret at its finest. We should be ‘loving it!’. But, rather than challenging preconceptions, this version challenges our patience.
In the original Off-Broadway run in 2014 there is a wonderful moment midway through – a gorgeous swipe at the Disney franchise. The ‘Princess who Kissed the Frog’ sings “Why’d it take ‘em so long to give a sister a song… ‘cause I am that storybook princess that’s fin’lly gone black”. Giacino’s point is that it wasn’t until 2009 when, for the first time in animation history, the fairest of them all was black. Director Tom Jackson Greaves’ decision to introduce such diversity into the casting of ‘Disenchanted’ way before this moment lets the joke fall somewhat flat.
Overall, the irreverence of the material is dampened by the exaggerated gaiety of the cast. And the hue-changing green screen backdrop distracts instead of being a neutral backdrop to the colourful characters. It takes an effort not to be snagged by these grating hurdles, but for those who make the effort to overcome them there is some reward. There is a very fine line up of performers indeed. Led by Jodie Steele’s ‘Snow White’ and aided by side kicks Allie Daniel (Sleeping Beauty) and Sophie Isaacs (Cinderella) we are guided through a series of vignettes in which various princesses are summoned to sing their way through their dissatisfactions and parody the princess culture. Highlights include Grace Mouat’s ‘Pocahontas’ (a character hitherto homogenised by the entertainment industry willing to distort her true Native-American story purely to sell cinema tickets) who sardonically sings that she “looks like a porn star”. Jenny O’Leary, as ‘Rapunzel’, brilliantly bemoans the total absence of royalties she receives from the global merchandising of her name in a Kurt Weill inspired number. And Courtney Bowman’s scathing but catchy diatribe against Middle Eastern misogyny is inspired.
There is a tenuous thread running through the musical numbers, reinforced by the repeated #princesscomplex hashtag. The messages are clear, but even now becoming a bit dated; and the balance between spite and humour aren’t always weighed up fully. Its intended audience is clear too, but the delivery is confused and awkward, like the shady, disenchanted state of limbo an adolescent might feel: too old for the youth club but too young for the pub.
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): it lives up to its definition. The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.