Tackling a classic beloved for generations and bringing it to the stage as a musical production is not for the faint-hearted. The team behind The Little Prince, now playing on Broadway, unleash their creative clout to transform a whimsical twentieth-century picture book into a performance combining dance, acrobatics, and song, with twenty-first-century video backdrops to add to the experience. Yet despite captivating stunts and a talented cast, the show somehow falls short on the very magic and mystery that make the book such an enduring favorite.
After a curiously long sound effect of an airplane coming in to land, with a dark projection on the safety curtain, the show opens in the desert, where an aviator has crashed and meets the Little Prince. For the most part, the plot hews closely to the original but there the similarities end—not least in the form of a blue-haired narrator played by Chris Mouron, who also wrote the libretto. Mouron gives voice to all the characters with mixed effect (and somewhat superfluous English subtitles for her lilting French-accented English). It would be wise to read the book, if you never have as, the show would be puzzling indeed without that background. The score by Terry Truck, meanwhile, is apparently influenced by EDM and has a throbbing, hypnotic effect.
The eponymous prince first appears balanced on an enormous sphere. This will turn out to be one of the lesser acrobatic feats of Lionel Zalachas, whose agility and strength make for an awe-inspiring performance. However, despite a spiky yellow haircut, he is definitely an adult, and one strains to suspend disbelief enough to see him as the child prince.
As oversaturated videos unfold on the backdrop—in contrast to the pastel palette of the book’s illustrations—the prince embarks on his odyssey from his own tiny planet to others in the universe. Along the way, he meets a cast of eccentric characters, all of whom symbolize the shortcomings of adults. One memorable encounter is with the Vain Man–Antony Cesar in a succession of red hats. Part mime, part athlete, the Vain Man admires himself in mirrors, portraits, and, in one of the few nods to contemporary culture, smartphone selfies. Images multiply on the video behind him as he performs an acrobatic hip-hop number.
The highlights of the show revolve around the stunts: performers do somersaults suspended from on high, or twirl at dizzying speed on aerial straps. (Be sure to stay after the first round of applause for the most gob-smacking stunt of all.) Another scene has a boa constrictor (Madison Ward) descend in heart-stopping moves from the ceiling, entwined in a rope. The numbers where the performers’ feet stay on the ground, in dances that feature often repetitive choreography (by Anne Tournié), fall flat in comparison. A duet with The Rose (Laurisse Sulty), the Little Prince’s great love, has slightly disturbing erotic overtones. This may be the subtext of the relationship in the book but one that passes over the average reader’s head. Here it’s pretty overt, and out of place.
One dance that does capture the sheer whimsy and the childlike wonder of the original is the meeting between the Prince and the Fox. The choreography here is more balletic and charming. The narrator’s commentary tells us that the Fox explains to the Prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” The pair end the scene in a friendly embrace watching the sunset.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated The Little Prince in New York while in exile from France in 1942. Debate continues over the meaning of the book but this episodic treatment may not satisfy those looking for an accessible interpretation. Despite thrilling moments, this version of The Little Prince may leave both fans of the book and newcomers to the story scratching their heads.