Music: Michel Legrand; Libretto: Didier Van Cauwelaert in Jeremy Sams' English adaptation. At: Black Button Eyes Productions at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6875 or AmourChicago.com; $17-$32. Runs through: Oct. 8
There's an odd breed of theater fan that author Ken Mandelbaum labels as "flop collectors" in his 1992 book Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops. These flop collectors are essentially theater aficionados who seek out sinking shows before they close for a lifetime of malicious laughter about what went wrong.
Local flop collectors should be flocking to Black Button Eyes Productions' Chicago premiere of Amour, a Broadway musical that barely eked out 31 previews and 17 performances in 2002. But what they'll find is a beautiful bonbon of show that would have been slotted into Mandelbaum's flop chapter titled "Not Bad."
What helps make Amour stand out is its delightfully melodic sung-through score by prolific Academy Award-winning French composer Michel Legrand, who is probably best known for his film scores to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ( 1964 ) and Yentl ( 1983 ). More problematic is Didier Van Cauwelaert's libretto presented here in Jeremy Sams' mostly amusing English translation.
Amour is inspired by Marcel Aymé's short story Le Passe-Muraille, which is about a mild-mannered Parisian clerk named Dusoleil ( Brian Fimoff ) who discovers he has the power to walk through walls. Amid post-World War II recovery, Dusoleil tests his newfound skills as both a thief to aid an aging prostitute ( Missy Wise ) and to mess with the head of a new domineering boss ( Kevin Webb ).
Yet ultimately, Dusoleil tries to gain the attention of the cloistered Isabelle ( Emily Goldberg ), who is trapped in a loveless marriage to an unfaithful prosecutor ( Greg Zawada ).
Despite its fragrantly French score, Amour is marred by a libretto full of plot holes ( it is never explained how the media gets a hold of Dusoleil's abilities ) and unnecessary character tangents ( as the socialistic painter played by Tommy Thurston doesn't really need a whole song ). Amour's wistfully mixed ending also probably didn't endear it to Broadway audiences.
On the plus side, Black Button Eyes' Amour features an impeccably strong ensemble who all clearly relish singing such gorgeous music and the acting challenges of inhabiting their comical and complex characters. One is almost able to overlook Michael Lewis' set of magenta and orange-colored walls and curtains that would be more appropriate as a unit set for the Arabian Nights rather than a new French fairy tale.
Within such a confined staging space, director Ed Rutherford succeeds at directing Amour's more intimate scenes with bare-bones precision. It's only during the sweeping orchestral moments as we see DuSoleil journey to and from work that Rutherford's staging stumbles a bit.
Flop collectors might be disappointed that Amour isn't an all-out disaster. Instead, audiences can marvel at Legrand's lovely score while also seeing how difficult it can be to successfully stage French whimsy.