Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo in Amélie, A New Musical at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.
Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo in Amélie, A New Musical at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

A bistro, a carousel, some principles of physics, shredded pictures from a photo booth, a roomful of aching hearts in the City of Light, and a winsome young waitress who can help everybody except herself. Not a bad set of ingredients, particularly when delivered by a composer who packs bounce and longing into every note, an eclectic and accomplished director, a sumptuous visual palette, and the luminous Phillipa Soo whose first stage project post-Hamilton proves the lady most certainly has the chops to carry a musical of her own.

As the titular heroine of Amélie, in its pre-Broadway run at the Ahmanson Theatre, Soo plays a character who operates in the shadows and practices her sneaky good deeds out of fear of what might happen if she doesn't set things right.

There is much gentle enchantment in director Pam McKinnon's production – a coproduction of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Center Theatre Group – that a viewer is challenged not to fall under Amélie' spell. Placing the action on a clever double level set, scenic designer David Zinn transports us whimsically from churches to underground metros, apartments to cafes, and the occasional stop in a sex shop or a market stall where a fruiterer sings an ode to figs. Under a hot moon and a beautiful array of moody blue lights, Amélie pursues a quirky quest for love or reason – whichever arrives first.

Attractive and charming though she most certainly is, Amélie is no conventional romantic heroine. Homeschooled and overprotected by her doctor father (Manoel Felciano) and teacher mother (Alison Cimmet), young Amélie (Savvy Crawford) strikes up a friendship with a goldfish, Fluffy (Paul Whitty), whom she subsequently has to set free. She then loses her mother to a freakish accident and witnesses her father's obsession with a garden gnome. As the years pass and adult Amélie (Soo) enters the scene and moves to Paris, her younger self bids her "good luck!" and the adventure of life among people begins.

Taking a job as a waitress at the Deux Moulins in Montmartre, Amélie starts putting her imagination and her powers of observation to work. The denizens of the café are all fragmented, angry, and lovelorn. Our heroine starts creatively solving their problems. She also recovers a book containing a collage of ripped-up images from a metro photo booth and sets her sights on restoring the book for its handsome owner, Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), who is as much a moonstruck dreamer as she is.

Except that Amélie can't seem to actually face Nino once she tracks him down, much less drop off the book. She's good at fleeing and – ironically – at leaving a bread crumb trail for others to find her. "I am a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped in a paradox disappearing into thin air," she informs Nino over the telephone. "Me too" is Nino's fitting reply.

The Amélie-Nino narrative will ultimately work itself out, and, in the hands of book writer Craig Lucas, the story's interlude encounters are highly diverting. A reclusive painter (Tony Sheldon) gives her some sage advice, and Amélie's matchmaking skills within the café are on target. Ditto for the way she creatively disposes of a troublesome garden gnome (David Andino); she sends it abroad. Lucas, adapting the film script by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurent, establishes the piece's quirky tone and never lets it spill into outright goofiness.

If composer Daniel Messé's work here is any barometer, we will be hearing a lot more from him. The Amélie score is a pastiche of waltzes, ballads, comic ditties, and sung-through stories set to lovely melodies. A parody of an Elton John tune even serves as a serenade for Amélie.

Sporting bobbed hair, a dowdy red skirt, and peasant blouse, Soo's Amélie is the perfect tour guide through this dreamy landscape. As frustrating and stubborn as the character can sometimes be, Soo gently burrows into Amélie's neuroses and lays the character bare. In her hands, we never want anything but the best for Amélie. Chanler-Berat's unassuming Nino, boyish and every bit the artist, partners her perfectly. Indeed from top to bottom, McKinnon's cast is a rogue's gallery of expert character actors from Sheldon to Health Calvert (who gives a scene-stealing turn as the fig-loving grocer) to young Savvy Crawford radiating pluck as young Amélie.

Heads up, New York. The mystery wrapped enigma is heading your way.