By Patrick O’Brien
The musical bonbon Amour is curious, most curious.
On one hand, it has quite the name attached—Oscar and Grammy winning composer Michel Legrand—and it has a decent production history abroad, in spite of its brief Broadway run in 2002. On the other hand, it wasn’t available for licensing until last July. Many a Broadway flop since has been able to find a healthy regional life in that interim, so why the wait?
It certainly isn’t for want of charm; it is a French musical. That said, it is a French musical, not an American one. So, upon entering the Athenaeum Theatre, where Black Button Eyes Productions brings Amour to Chicago for the first time, adjust expectations accordingly and Gallically.
Adapted from a popular French short story — Marcel Aymé ’s Le Passe Muraille—Amour is as airy as good monsieur Dusoleil (Brian Fimoff), a perfectly anonymous clerk who develops the ability to walk through walls. Freed from his everyday confines, he commits acts of anonymous do-goodery to enrich the drab lives of his little corner of post-war Montmartre, and pursues the virtuous Isabelle (Emily Goldberg), who is virtually imprisoned by her jealous prosecutor husband (Greg Zawada).
A through-composed work, Legrand’s music is puckish and lilting—romantic, even—be it jazz waltz or comic operetta, and Jeremy Sams’ frequently clever translation of Didier van Cauwelaert’s original French libretto finds whimsy, humor and longing in the quotidian, not unlike Legrand’s own “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
So, why the wait?
It wouldn’t seem strange to hang a musical around a milquetoast coming out of his shell, and Fimoff has the pushover physique and the expressive face to embody Dusoleil’s journey from invisibility to boldness. But this is where the inherent Frenchness of the piece comes in.
European musical theater on the whole favors the music half of the equation; solid music can theoretically relieve musicals light on weight and firm A to Z plotting. Legrand’s music is as solid as anything in his prolific career, but this musical—adapted from a French classic by Frenchmen for French audiences—feels patchy on outside turf. Dusoleil’s own journey isn’t dramatized, but depicted through the local color’s reaction to his good deeds, so he never fully sheds his shell. Fimoff’s singing—the very key to tracking his newfound boldness—is also unfortunately underpowered.
Goldberg, meanwhile, wraps her throat around some truly beautiful ballads—“Somebody,” in particular—but Isabelle’s a kingdom short of just being the princess locked in the tower. More to the point, the lovers don’t even engineer their happy ending together, nor is the twist that frees them to be together properly set up. (Or set up, at all.)
When Les Misérables was translated from French to English for the first time, Cameron Mackintosh insisted on expository rewrites, if only because Victor Hugo’s novel is so revered in its native France that the writers initially didn’t need to include exposition. Amour could probably benefit from similar treatment: enough to get from A to B and all the way to Z, and in an economical enough time. (This production runs about 100 minutes, not counting a rather unnecessary intermission.)
In short, Amour will have cult appeal, and that’s not such a bad thing for Black Button Eyes, whose mission focuses on seldom seen shows. Lovingly so, director Ed Rutherford, Choreographer Derek Van Barham and Music Director Nick Sula whip the show into fine cream. Their ensemble cast is the sugar, especially Missy Wise as a disarmingly frank prostitute and the aforementioned Zawada, who goes for the hissable and loves it.
Much like the statue that Aymé’s story inspired, Amour is almost makes it all the way through, but it’s still interesting and worthy of examination, nonetheless. And almost breaking through barriers—physical, mental, or cultural—is arguably better than not doing it at all.
So why wait?
Black Button Eyes Productions presents “Amour” through October 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. More information, specific show times and tickets ($32, $17 for students) are available here. Photos by Cole Simon.