Review: "The Little Prince", a circus of lumberjacks

“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a great classic of children’s literature first published in 1943, begins with a forced ...


“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a great classic of children’s literature first published in 1943, begins with a forced landing. Now, an adaptation of the beloved tale has made an equally unfortunate debut on Broadway.

The show tries to juggle theatre, dance, circus, cabaret and everyone’s favourite: philosophical reverie. It’s a mix that Cirque du Soleil, especially with the shows directed by genius Franco Dragone, has honed into cohesive shows. And the company’s accomplishments look even more remarkable compared to this disappointing hodgepodge, which opened at the Broadway Theater on Monday.

This “Little Prince” is an uncomfortable hybrid, neither fish, nor poultry, nor mutton. When the childlike being (his age is unclear in the book, which is part of the plot) encounters a stranded airman early in the show, he asks, “Please draw me a sheep.” Enter a herd of actors, prancing and dancing in shapeless outfits, and bleating like the sweet, lovable animals. It is then that, a few minutes after the start of a production of almost two hours, we realize that this “Little Prince” is going to be a long day of travel to fantasy.

Saint-Exupéry, a Frenchman who was also a pilot in the 1920s and 1930s, wrote and illustrated “The Little Prince” while in exile in New York during World War II. The book was first published here in 1943, which is why the manuscript is part of the Morgan Library & Museum collection. Well, except for now as it’s on loan to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs for an exhibition, the precious artefact’s first trip to France in nearly eight decades.

New York, for its part, gets this stage version, which premiered in Paris in 2019 and has toured extensively since. It’s hard to fight the sneaky suspicion that we’ve been wronged.

The aviator (Aurélien Bednarek) and the Little Prince (adult Lionel Zalachas, his spiky blond hair making him look like Sting in the original film “Dune”) meet cute in the Sahara: one got the plane and the another is visiting from a tiny asteroid. As the aviator attempts to repair his engine, the Little Prince tells him of his surreal encounters with a series of creatures on various intergalactic worlds, including a fetching rose (Laurisse Sulty), a businessman full of numbers (Adrien Picaut), a manipulative snake (Srilata Ray) and a wise fox (Dylan Barone), who delivers one of the most famous lines in history: “What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”

The book is a parable so rich in flights, ahem, of fantasy that it’s been adapted over the decades into plays, musicals, movies, operas, graphic novels, and games. (Connoisseurs of Hollywood kitsch may remember Stanley Donen’s 1974 filmin which Bob Fosse conclusively established that a snake can smoke and do jazz hands.)

The structure lends itself well to a circus-style, vignette-based show, as each encounter can become an act, and you can string one after another with minimal interference from a traditional plot. Still, those who haven’t read the book — and even those who have — may wonder what’s going on, and the direction and performances aren’t strong enough to keep the mind from wandering to such questions.

A central issue is the scenic narration led by Chris Mouron, also author of the adaptation and co-director with choreographer Anne Tournié. Cutting an androgynous figure in a green suit and steampunk butler costume, Mouron declaims her lines (in English) hesitantly as if delivering Racine’s monologues, and effectively sucks all the potential levity out of the series. Like the best children’s literature, Saint-Exupéry’s book is bittersweet, and even touches on tragedy, but it also has a poetic grace and plenty of surreal touches of humor – few of which are in evidence here.

Instead, the show moves from stage to stage, with a few aerial exploits and an all-too-brief appearance of the ring-like device known as the Cyr Wheel drowned out by too much bland dancing and much too many neo-recorded Terry Trucks. Classical music, new age. Contributing to the mood – do with it what you will – are Peggy Housset’s simply usable costumes and Marie Jumelin’s video design that looks like a Photoshopped jumble of paintings by Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, the animated film 1970s “Fantastic Planet” and Illustrations by Roger Dean for Yes album covers.

Although the performers spend time suspended on stage, the production remains stubbornly grounded. Until, that is, what turns out to be a somewhat perverse move: the only stunning scene, in which Antony Cesar hovers over the audience, occurs after the curtain rolls, when there is no more show to stop.

The little Prince
Through August 14 at the Broadway Theatre, Manhattan; thelittleprincebroadway.com; Duration: 1h50.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: "The Little Prince", a circus of lumberjacks
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