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Theatre in Review: The Little Prince (Broadway Theatre)

Marcin Janiak. Photo: Joan Marcus

Why are people so hell-bent on adapting The Little Prince? Yes, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella is beloved, having sold millions of copies, and if you took French in high school, you probably read it. But is it stage or screenworthy? A 1974 film, with a bizarre cast that included Richard Kiley, Bob Fosse, Gene Wilder, and Donna McKechnie, set to a score by Lerner and Loewe(!) was poorly received and a box office dud. The 1981 Broadway musical The Little Prince and the Aviator never made it out of previews. A 2003 opera by Rachel Portman doesn't seem fated to become a repertory staple. An animated version, made in 2015, was dropped from Paramount Pictures' release schedule, later turning up on Netflix. It's putting it kindly to say that the title has not been a watchword for success.

Presumably, the creatives behind these projects read the book. Did they not notice that it is little more than a series of whimsical episodes punctuated by classically Gallic aphorisms? ("One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eye.") That they are being asked to dramatize characters that include a rose, a snake, and a fox? That this sort of fragile fantasy turns to shreds when examined too closely? Love it or loathe it, playwrights, composers, and filmmakers never seem to notice that The Little Prince gives them little or nothing to work with.

And still they try. Now comes a rather baffling dance version, featuring a French cast and production team, which, we are told, has been the toast of Paris, Sydney, and Dubai. Staged and choregraphed by Anne Tournié, a longtime associate of spectacle master Franco Dragone, it comes with live narration by the actress Chris Mouron, who is also billed as librettist and co-director. She speaks in English, but her accent is sufficiently thick that surtitles are provided.

With Lionel Zalachas as a rather strapping, not-so Little Prince, one or two choreographed sequences come to theatrical life. The encounter with the prince's beloved Rose is gorgeously danced by him and Laurisse Sulty, the latter sporting a highly imaginative costume (by Peggy Housset) that allows her to bloom onstage. Antony Cesar makes a strong impression as The Vain Man, whose manic self-obsession is amusingly mirrored in his frantic movements. Given Tournié's long experience with Dragone, the most arrestingly staged sequences make use of aerial straps, at one point sending a performing soaring into the auditorium. (The flying effects, which include an up-in-the-air turn by Marcin Janiak as the Lamplighter, are by Foy.) But the lack of narrative and the rather limited dance vocabulary are major debits, to say nothing of Terry Truck's irritatingly repetitive music, which is delivered at high volume levels by sound designer Tristan Viscogliosi. In place of a scenic design, The Little Prince has an enormous upstage video screen to which the designer Marie Jumelin delivers a series of trippy images -- deserts, tiny planets, collages of selfies, math equations, railroad switching stations, and a checkerboard square filled with gas lamps. Stéphane Fritsch's solid lighting design relies heavily on side angles to carve out the dancers and avoid conflict with the video.

The episodes are meant to illustrate various aspects of human folly: vanity, drunkenness, workaholism; they are highly variable in quality and the points they make are commonplace. Since they don't build on each other, the evening can't escape a sense of drift. Those who remain enchanted by the book may enjoy seeing it transmuted into a different format but I'm guessing that even they may wonder about the point of it all. At the performance I attended, the audience was mostly made up of families, but surely most kids want a strong story, which is this production's Achilles heel. Overall, it's a perplexing evening, leaving one plagued with questions: Why does this production exist? Who is it for? Was it really a hit in those other cities? Well, every season has it oddities, and this one is odder than most. When it comes to a stage version of The Little Prince, maybe it's time to throw in the towel. --David Barbour

(19 April 2022)

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