The word luminous gets tossed around a lot, but when it comes to describing Phillipa Soo onstage, no other adjective will do. As the director Pam MacKinnon puts it, “It’s like, Wait a second—is there a spotlight on her? Nope, it’s just her inner glow.” Soo first lit up the stage, fresh out of Juilliard, as a lovelorn Tolstoy heroine in the 2012 Off-Broadway pop-musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. She went on to earn a Tony nomination for her moving turn as Eliza Hamilton, opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda, in Hamilton. Now, under MacKinnon’s direction, the 26-year-old actress is bringing her brand of incandescence—not to mention her ravishing soprano—back to Broadway, in the title role of the new musical Amélie, adapted from the 2001 French film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet that made Audrey Tautou an international star.
“I first saw it when I was in high school, and I related so strongly to this young woman’s desire to see the world in a new way—in this fanciful, colorful, beautiful way,” Soo, who grew up outside Chicago studying ballet and singing Motown and Aretha Franklin around the house, recalls. “I was inspired to try to do the same, which is exactly what you do as an artist of any kind.” And after playing two grief-stricken characters, she says, “it’s refreshing to be able to show people that I don’t just cry and look forlorn onstage.”
Like the film, the musical, with a book by Craig Lucas (An American in Paris) and songs by Daniel Messé (of the Brooklyn-based indie band Hem) and Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting), is a romantic comedy about a shy and gamine Parisian waitress with an overactive imagination, who careens around Montmartre performing anonymous acts of kindness for strangers but remains a loner till she falls for an equally whimsical and solitary young man named Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat). “She is someone who sees things through her imagination, so tiny gestures can be ballets in her mind,” Soo says. “But the flaw in that is she really isn’t able to connect with people. When she meets Nino, suddenly it becomes a love story, and the question is, Can she jump into it and take the risk of letting someone into her life?” (Soo apparently has no such conflict—she’s engaged to the actor Steven Pasquale.)
A large part of the film’s charm lies in its hyperkinetic sweep and candy-colored visuals. Translating all those special effects to the stage was one of the challenges that piqued the interest of MacKinnon, a director better known for such acid-etched work as her Tony-winning 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Jeunet’s film is a love letter to cinema,” she says, “and I really wanted this to be a love letter to theater.” That means a small ensemble of actors playing multiple roles while breaking the fourth wall, a handmade-looking Parisian cityscape (the sets and costumes are by David Zinn), and stagecraft that doesn’t try to hide its workings. Of course, MacKinnon says, “I don’t have the camera to take us into Phillipa’s eyes. But our analogue to the close-up is she gets to sing. She can freeze time and take us inside her head.” That was crucial for MacKinnon, who wanted to make Amélie less of an enigmatic waif. “I was looking for a more feminist take,” she says. “To me, it’s about a young woman stepping into her power, and that remains a dangerous idea, particularly right now.”