Even before minimalism became one of the dominant styles in contemporary serious music, Michel Legrand practiced it with impunity. Think, for example, of the irritatingly repetitive "Windmills of Your Mind."
If, however, such sing-song monotony is your cup of tea, you might enjoy "Amour," for which Legrand has supplied the score. "Amour" is based on a work by Marcel Ayme, a French purveyor of whimsy, which used to be one of that nation's major theatrical exports. (Other key suppliers were Giraudoux and Anouilh.) If you want to understand why the world market for whimsy is fairly low, "Amour" makes a good case. It has an amusing premise - a man discovers he has the power to move through walls - but nothing about its development seems particularly imaginative. Mind you, the Parisians like the story so much there is a sculpture of a man's head, arm and leg coming through a wall in Montmartre in Ayme's honor. (A postcard of it is included in the program.) The French text has been translated into English by Jeremy Sams, who directed last year's successful revival of "Noises Off."
The rhymes are clever ("Sinatra/Montmartre," "barrister/embarrassed'er"), but they don't compensate for the thinness of the action. The man with the magical ability is in love with a married woman he sometimes glimpses on her balcony. A series of coincidences, as well as his supernatural gift, wins her for him. If, when this happened, they burst into the theme from Legrand's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," it might have been worth the effort. But they don't. The cast, led by Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets, is talented, but the music (which is continual) is blandly pleasant, never dramatic, even in a charming duet for Errico and Gets, seemingly the culmination of their ardor. The closest anyone comes to breaking free of the musical sameness is Norm Lewis, whose delightful solo as a painter has a lovely flute obbligato. In Scott Pask's set, a foreshortened Basilica of Sacre Coeur is visible in the distance, but the walls that lead to it lack Parisian charm. At first, they have a Magritte-like aura that suggests magic is about to happen. But for most of the evening, their coldness squelches the show's fitful fancifulness.
Where are the parapluies of yesteryear? Michel Legrand - composer of that wonderful, bittersweet movie tear-jerker "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" - is back with a delicately delicious musical called "Amour," which opened Sunday at the Music Box Theater.
"Amour" is the oddly generic title for Legrand's 1997 musical adaptation of Marcel Ayme's short story "Le Passe-Muraille" ("The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls"), about a young, stuffy bureaucrat who finds he can penetrate bricks, mortar, glass . . . you name it.
Soon he finds himself transformed from a nerdy outsider into a Robin Hood-style cat burglar, M. Passepartout, the toast of Paris, in those heady Cocteau-party days of 1950.
He also has the chance to steal into the life and bed of the young woman he loves, who's kept behind locked walls, imprisoned by her wicked husband, a corrupt prosecutor with a Nazi collaborationist past and nasty sexual habits.
Brief as a magic kiss (90 minutes without intermission), this virtually unheralded little musical could prove a sleeper hit for the Broadway season.
Legrand's operetta (it has a sung-through libretto with no spoken dialogue) is lighthearted and light-textured, with music suggesting a touch of French cabaret and a soupcon of Ravel, with the lilt of a waltz lurking back there like a lingering perfume.
In a word, it has atmosphere.
The original French libretto by Didier van Cauwelaert has been deftly adapted into dizzy English couplets by Jeremy Sams, whose relentlessly clever rhymes bring to mind W.S. Gilbert going crazy in an unexpectedly Gallic mode.
These words and music find an exquisite match in Scott Pask's setting presided over by the looming dome of Le Sacre Coeur, which cheekily suggests, with its opening group of derby-hatted inhabitants, a Magritte cityscape.
There is an existential fantasy here that the costume designer Dona Granata has picked up on, and that director James Lapine and the brilliant downtown choreographer Jane Comfort, who offers a mean cancan, positively exult in.
The performances are as graceful and as exuberant as the fable itself, with lovely cameo turns from Lewis Cleale, John Cunningham, Christopher Fitzgerald, Norm Lewis, Sarah Litzsinger, Nora Mae Lyng (who plays a whore funnier if not so sweet as Irma La Douce) and Bill Nolte.
The lovely stars are Melissa Errico, who plays the heroine Isabelle with unflustered piquancy and a silver-brushed voice, and the excellent Malcolm Gets, doing the nerd-turning act with affable expertise and heart-rending grace.
"Amour," with its Ionesco-like fantasies and absurdities, may not be for everyone - there are those who would not fancy an icy Pernod in a Left Bank sidewalk cafe - but those who like it will love it.
Even charming is too weighty a word to describe the wispy appeal of ''Amour,'' the twinkling trinket of a musical from the French pop composer Michel Legrand, which opened last night at the Music Box Theater.
Certainly none of the vigorous language usually trotted out for song-filled Broadway diversions -- romp, frolic and (heaven forbid) blast -- applies to a Gallic slice of whimsy that seems shaped less to stimulate than to soothe. Staged with artful gentleness by James Lapine, ''Amour'' is a bedtime story for grown-ups. Weighing in at a slender 90 minutes, it is especially suited to grown-ups who like to see lights out before 11.
Under the less Broadway-friendly title of ''Le Passe-Muraille'' (''The Passer-Through-Walls''), ''Amour'' became a sleeper hit in Paris, where it was celebrated by critics for being so, well, so very French. It is easy to see how the show would have enchanted a people whose sartorial and intellectual wardrobes tend to be made up of neatly coordinated classics.
After all ''Le Passe-Muraille'' is a 1941 short story (by Marcel Aymé) that has assumed urban legend status. Its plot, in which a timid clerk becomes a Robin Hood-like folk hero, suggests a de-clawed variation on the French worship of picturesque criminals like Lacenaire. And its sung-through score was written by no less pervasive a cultural force than Mr. Legrand, who composed the songs for the adored confectionery movie musicals ''The Umbrellas of Cherbourg'' and ''The Young Girls of Rochefort.''
The creators of ''Amour,'' which has been adapted into English by Jeremy Sams (best known here as a director), have clearly done their best to retain the show's ineffable and willfully musty French flavor. But Americans for whom French means crimes passionels and sinfully rich desserts may be disappointed by the production's exceedingly mild taste.
At the show's center is Dusoleil (Malcolm Gets), an insignificant fellow who, in a couplet typical of Mr. Sams's Dr. Seuss-like translation of Didier van Cauwelaert's libretto, says of himself, ''I don't deserve your attention/ I'm hardly worthy of mention.''
One fatal night this socially invisible man discovers that he can walk through walls. This allows him to terrorize his nasty new boss (Bill Nolte); give bread, money and jewels to the deserving bourgeoisie; and win over the beauteous Isabelle (Melissa Errico), the prisoner of an unhappy marriage to an evil, Javertesque prosecutor (Lewis Cleale).
All this takes place against an eye-teasing, monochromatic cityscape of Montmartre. The set, by Scott Pask, also pays homage to the cloud-dotted blue skies and trompe-l'oeil perspectives of Magritte. The Surrealist motif is nicely carried out in Dona Granata's costumes and the characteristically first-rate lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
There is nary a trace, however, of the subliminal menace and disorientation of Magritte's paintings. Despite its conferring of a supernatural talent upon its hero, ''Amour'' has as its stock in trade a reassuring predictability, not unsettling surprises.
The music brings to mind less the swirling cinematic rhapsodies for which Mr. Legrand is best known in the United States (like ''The Windmills of Your Mind'' from ''The Thomas Crown Affair'') than elevator-music settings of the fairy-tale fantasies of Offenbach. There is a hypnotic, tinkling air to the melodies that matches the ''one foot in front of the other'' rhymes of the lyrics, which occasionally make room for commonplace obscenities and naughty references to (ooh-la-la) specific sex acts.
The supporting cast of characters is an assemblage of stock figures so predictable that had an American devised them he would have been accused of rank stereotyping: the prostitute (Nora Mae Lyng), the beret-wearing painter (Norm Lewis), the perky newsboy (Christopher Fitzgerald), the passionate bespectacled virgin (Sarah Litzsinger) and the alcoholic doctor (John Cunningham).
These all-too-familiar types interact in shenanigans that mix traces of the formal style of Jacques Tati with the more mawkish sentimentality of Charlie Chaplin. Combined with the metronomic persistence of the rhymed libretto and the low-boil bubbliness of the music, this sensibility can start to feel claustrophobically fey.
Mercifully, however, the ensemble members are all excellent, of clear and characterful voice, and Mr. Lapine and his sure-handed choreographer, Jane Comfort, have steered them from the dangers of overselling cuteness. And Ms. Errico's china-doll prettiness and shimmering soprano has not been put to such tasty use since her appearance in the Encores production of ''One Touch of Venus.''
As befits a man who can walk through walls, it is Mr. Gets's Dusoleil who goes furthest in breaking through the show's prevailing air of existing in two dimensions like an animated cartoon. Recently seen holding his own with the great Barbara Cook in her ''Mostly Sondheim'' concerts, he here manages to bring flickers of engaging wildness to Dusoleil's mild persona.
His performance conjures, as it should, the idea of an über-everyman. But Mr. Gets injects this archetype with deftly shaded idiosyncrasies that never disrupt the show's carefully sustained tone. You feel that should this fellow really be confined inside a wall -- or, more to the point, a French postcard -- something vitally and originally human would be lost. The same cannot really be said of ''Amour'' as a whole.
There is often a perilously fine line between wacky and stupid. In musical comedy, The Producers springs to mind as a fairly recent example of how that narrow path can be walked with balance and coordination.
Then there is Amour, the decidedly spastic show that opened Sunday at Broadway's Music Box Theatre.
Originally a French musical based on a short story popular in that country, Amour tells the tale of Dusoleil, a nerdy civil servant who discovers one day that he can walk through walls. Emboldened by his powers, our hero becomes a supernatural Robin Hood, using petty thievery to provide treats for his poor neighbors in post-World War II Paris. He also manages to woo the fair young wife of a prominent, pompous city official.
Clocking in at only 90 minutes, Amour might have been a charming little diversion in more inspired hands. The music by accomplished film composer Michel Legrand has a pleasantly breezy, whimsical flavor, but most of the melodies seem canned and generic. Because the show is sung entirely through in the tradition of comic opera, that's hardly a minor liability.
The libretto poses an even bigger problem. In adapting Didier van Cauwelaert's French musings, Jeremy Sams came up with some of the most strained, stilted rhymes and dull-witted wordplay I've ever heard, on or off a stage. The examples are too numerous to mention, and besides, lines such as "No one guessed/That my ample breast/Could conceal such feelings and yet keep them unexpressed" must be warbled in context in order to fully convey their idiocy. But suffice to say that any audience member with a child will yearn for the fluid cleverness of Barney's songs.
Despite its awkward sexual humor, Amour has the aggressively contrived, patronizing feel of a poorly executed children's television show. Cartoonish supporting characters such as a bohemian street artist and a flame-haired, overripe prostitute take turns addressing the audience in cringe-inducing asides, while the principals croon ad nauseum about their clichéd troubles.
One feels for director James Lapine, a frequent Stephen Sondheim collaborator who was clearly stumped by the insipid material he had to work with here and by a mostly lackluster cast. Melissa Errico sings sweetly and looks convincingly forlorn as Isabelle, the long-suffering object of Dusoleil's affections. But neither she nor leading man Malcolm Gets possess the kind of superior invention or charisma it would take to make this inherently lame comedy stand up.
In an interview, Legrand admitted to having some concerns about whether Broadway audiences would appreciate Amour: "I told the producer, 'It's very French. Will the American public understand it?' "
Je regrette, monsieur, but even Jerry Lewis made more sense than this.
Context is crucial, in art as in life. Things that you might find delightful in Paris -- hauteur, rainy afternoons and smoke-choked bistros -- are somehow less appealing on home turf. Such is likely to be the case with Michel Legrand's musical "Amour," which ran for a year in the City of Light but may not last the winter in the Big Apple. This head-scratcher of a musical aims for whimsical charm -- not an easy target to hit, for sure -- but mostly comes across as just odd. It is amiably performed and handsomely staged and designed, but the show's airy, souffle-like consistency is eventually more exasperating than enchanting. And with Legrand's tinkly score and the sing-songy lyrics by Jeremy Sams trundling along for 90 minutes straight, the effect is not unlike being stuck on a merry-go-round. Eventually it's hard to tell if it's you or the show getting dizzier by the minute.
The musical, with an original libretto by Didier Van Cauwelaert that has been set in English by Sams, is based on a popular French short story by Marcel Ayme, a writer little known outside France. The action is set in postwar Paris, which is presented here with all the storybook symbols: Berets and baguettes abound, and the chorus of supporting characters includes a painter and a philosophizing streetwalker (in case you missed the lyric that tells us we're in that lovably seedy Montmartre district). Scott Pask's set has a certain children's-book quality to it that befits both the fantastical storyline and the music-box score by Legrand.
Malcolm Gets plays the central character, M. Dusoleil, a milquetoast functionary in the Ministry of Post who one day discovers he is able to walk through walls. He seeks out a doctor for some advice -- though heaven knows that wouldn't necessarily be one's first instinct -- but soon is feeling his drab life transformed: "I was a monk in a cloister/But now the world is my oyster/If I can walk through any door/Then life's not dull anymore…" (Sams' lyrics are sometimes graceful and witty, sometimes obvious. They are certainly impressive in terms of sheer volume, but the heavy rhyme schemes get very exhausting.)
Although Dusoleil had previously sung of his infatuation with the neighborhood beauty, Isabelle (Melissa Errico), whom he has always been too shy to approach, he doesn't immediately seek her out in her isolation. (She is kept locked away from the world by a jealous husband who is also a prosecutor by profession.) Instead he spooks his cranky new boss, and eventually moves on to greater acts of benevolent larceny, dropping diamonds around the neck of the prostitute and eventually gaining fame as a sort of latter-day Robin Hood -- although how he distributes this largesse without, apparently, being identified is one of many mysteries never addressed in the musical's peculiar libretto.
Also of mysterious provenance are the persistent notes of coarseness that keep cropping up, like bits of grit in one's creme brulee. Isabelle's husband sings of his fondness for being whipped, the streetwalker (who is rather vulgarly called "whore") laments a slow night with lyrics like "better a blow job than no job at all," and at one startling moment, a female admirer visiting Dusoleil in jail, where's he's gotten himself locked up to impress Isabelle (ask not why), throws up her skirt and spreads her legs lasciviously, prompting a shocked explosion -- "Oh, Jesus!" -- from the gentleman sitting behind me that felt more authentic than most of the goings-on onstage. At such times James Lapine's generally light-fingered direction goes astray.
But these peculiarities are in fact no odder than the peregrinations of the libretto, which persistently pushes the central romance to the background in favor of splashes of local color. Oddest of all may be the semi-climactic courtroom scene, highlighted by a madcap solo turn for Dusoleil's attorney, whose defense consists of a plea for his own inexperience ("I'm feeling rather unprepared/So I'm not much of a barrister/And I couldn't feel embarrassed-er"). Never mind: Isabelle's arrival signals a surprise revelation and an impromptu cancan that save the day. Perhaps French audiences, familiar with the tale, were indulgent of Van Cauwelaert's somewhat surreal approach to narrative (Magritte references in the show's design seem to acknowledge the dottiness). But it keeps us at a constant distance from the "amour" that should be the show's emotional center.
Legrand's music owes more to traditional operetta than the period pop sounds of his movie scores for Jacques Demy. Scored for piano, woodwinds, percussion and bass, it is wonderfully played and has many moments of real charm. The comic numbers recall the martial riffs in Jacques Offenbach, an acknowledged influence, and even Gilbert & Sullivan. They are delightfully dispatched by the supporting cast, including Christopher Fitzgerald as that nervous lawyer, Bill Nolte as Dusoleil's hectoring boss, Lewis Cleale as that kinky prosecutor, Sarah Litzsinger as Dusoleil's admirer and veteran John Cunningham as a dipsomaniacal doctor and others. Norm Lewis, as the painter, has a nice but unnecessary solo that shows off his stylish baritone, and Nora Mae Lyng impresses with her brassy professionalism as the prostitute.
The role of Dusoleil isn't an easy one -- it would probably require the genius of a Danny Kaye to really pull it off -- but Gets manages to negotiate both its comic and sentimental aspects honorably, and sings terrifically. But the musical's charm factor rises exponentially whenever Melissa Errico opens her mouth to sing. This ravishingly pretty actress with a gorgeous, silvery soprano is so naturally beguiling she lifts the spirits merely by sauntering onstage in one of Dona Granata's splendid period dresses. Her lilting solo songs have a natural gracefulness that eludes the evening as a whole. Most of them are dreamy laments for an imaginary savior, and the emotional authenticity Errico brings to them might well have roots in her own experience. Surely this gifted actress has spent many an afternoon pining for a new Broadway musical that would properly showcase her talents. For now, she'll have to keep dreaming.