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Amour

By New York City
Malcolm Gets in Amour(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Malcolm Gets in Amour
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
The word "charm" is contained in the word "charisma," but does that mean that the two are inextricably attached? This question popped into one observer's mind after a viewing of Amour, the musical adaptation of Marcel Aymé's 1943 short story "Le Passe-Muraille." As reconfigured by librettist-lyricist Didier van Cauwelaert and that never-can-miss melody-maker Michel Legrand for a Paris production, Le Passe-Muraille presumably exuded enough charm (and, perhaps, charisma) to run for a year -- not bad in a theater arena where musicals aren't automatically clasped to grateful hearts. In 1997, Le Passe-Muraille even won the Paris equivalent of a Tony, the Prix Molière.

Now Jeremy Sams, who directed the recent and expert Noises Off revival, has joined the creative team as adaptor and translator of the show's Broadway incarnation. He began his transformation with the title (the original means "the man who walks through walls"). This change is acceptable, considering that "amour" is a noun with which most English-speaking audiences are familiar. However, Sams might just as well have chosen the title The Umbrellas of Montmartre, since Legrand is the composer of the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and since René Magritte-like umbrellas abound in the new tuner at hand. (Someone involved in the show understands that one of the secrets still kept from tourists is that Paris is as rainy as, if not more so than, London.)

About Sams' Amour, it can be said without fear of argument that the show is fragrant with charm. (The chap's English and does drop Britishisms like "give a toss" and "lumbered" into the script.) But, though James Lapine directs the chamber musical with his typical understanding of delicacy, the show's charisma quotient is questionable. If, however, there's an absence here of whatever it is that elevates charm to something with more magnetism, that condition doesn't originate with Aymé. Maybe it has something to do with the problem that Gallic charm sometimes has in retaining its potency when dispatched past France's borders.

Nevertheless, Amour's allure revolves around how ticket buyers respond to the treatment of that fellow who walks through walls. His surname -- the only one given him -- is Dusoleil, which, by the way, means "of the sun." (Aymé called him Dutilleul, which means "of the lime-tree." Of course, "Dusoleil" lends itself to more rhymes in English than does "Dutilleul.") The thing about Dusoleil, played here by Malcolm Gets, is that he's completely un-charismatic. He's not of the sun. he's of the rain, as the umbrella he customarily carries attests. He's a civil servant, disliked by his co-workers because he's slavishly devoted to the office's meaningless tasks.

Only when Dusoleil accidentally discovers he has the power to walk through walls does he begin to assert himself. That's when he unhinges the World War II military man who is now his officious new boss, burgles a jewelry store in order to cheer up a prostitute in his Montmartre neighborhood, and gives his neighbors something to crow about. (Aymé wrote about Montmartre because it was the Paris arrondissement he knew best; "Le Passe-Muraille" is a valentine to denizens of the area, whom he whimsically saw as possessing extra-special gifts.)

In time, Dusoleil expands his exploits without detection but chooses to be arrested when he realizes that headlines might impress Isabelle (Melissa Errico), a beautiful woman whom he has admired from afar. Needless to say, his detention doesn't stop him from slipping through prison walls to finally arrive at Isabelle's boudoir. (Refreshingly, there are no attention-deflecting special effects here; Gets literally slips through slits in set pieces.) Eventually, Dusoleil is apprehended again and put on trial.

Gets and Melissa Errico in Amour(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Gets and Melissa Errico in Amour
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What happens next won't be divulged here, but what needs to be considered is the failure of the musical's creators to make an un-charismatic central character charismatic. This is not the fault of the winning Malcolm Gets, whose singing is nicely emotive even if his vocal timbre isn't constantly thrilling sound. The problem is that not enough has been done to inflame Gets; in fact, this inventive actor seems to be held back. Some lively events that Aymé imagined are discarded for Amour in favor of less exciting narrative developments. That's too bad, because there are a couple of moments in the show when what was needed -- and what Gets is clearly capable of -- is manifest. Just after Dusoleil has learned to be free, he doffs the gray outfit he regularly wears (the evocative costumes are Dona Granata's) and, appearing in a red blazer, he's also physically ablaze. Later, when crossing stage, Gets executes a full, in-air spin. He clearly has it in him to astonish, but the action -- or inaction -- of the musical restrains him.

Sams' lyrics also prevent the show from taking off -- a situation that, obviously, affects not only Gets but also the entire cast. And what a versatile, if small, ensemble Christopher Fitzgerald, John Cunningham, Norm Lewis, Nora Mae Lyng, Lewis Cleale, and Sarah Litzsinger make. Things go swimmingly for them in the nearly through-sung piece when they're delivering the rhyming couplet/rhyming triplet, recitative-like sections of the score. When Fitzgerald, a habitual scene-stealer, sings Sams' rhyme of "barrister" with "embarrassed-er," the word pairing is something that W.S. Gilbert might have envied. There's also a number during which the three ladies of the cast get to do a canny can-can.

It's in the score's discreet songs that Sams disappoints. When characters give voice to their inner emotions in song -- which is what musical theater is all about -- the effect should be striking, but that doesn't happen here. Even when Gets and the ultra-charming Errico as Dusoleil and Isabelle land in her bed together and begin to warble, they express themselves in prosaic phrases. The magnetic Lewis, playing a Place du Tertre artist, needs a better song for the moment when his character confesses the fear that he's only second-rate. Lyng does a fine job with the comedy ditty that's been handed to the fille de joie who is losing her joie de vivre. But had frequent Legrand collaborators Marilyn and Alan Bergman (for instance) been handed this lyric-writing assignment, the overall results might have been much closer to what's required.

In sum, Amour -- despite its Magritte/George Tooker-like sets by Scott Pask and its Paris-moody lighting design by Jules Fisher-Peggy Eisenhauer -- is not affecting enough for many musical theater buffs to fall in love with.


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