Review: ‘The Little Prince,’ a Lumbering Circus

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

The show is trying to juggle theater, dancical, circus, cabaret and everybody’s favorite: philosophical musing. It’s a mix that Cirque du Soleil, especially with the shows directed by the mastermind Franco Dragone, has fine-tuned into cohesive spectacles. And the company’s achievements seem even more remarkable in comparison to this underwhelming mishmash, which opened on Monday at the Broadway Theater.

This “Little Prince” is an uncomfortable hybrid, neither fish nor fowl or sheep. When the childlike being (his age is unclear in the book, which is part of the point) runs into a stranded aviator at the start of the show, he asks, “Please, draw me a sheep.” Enter a flock of actors, prancing and dancing in shapeless outfits, and bleating like the sweet, lovable animals. This is when, a few minutes into a nearly two-hour-long production, the realization hits that this “Little Prince” is going to be a long day’s journey into whimsy.

Saint-Exupéry, a Frenchman who doubled as a pilot in the 1920s and ’30s, wrote and illustrated “The Little Prince” while exiled in New York during World War II. The book was first published here in 1943, which is why the manuscript is in the Morgan Library & Museum’s collection. Well, except for right now because it is on loan to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs for an exhibition, the precious artifact’s first trip to France in almost eight decades.

New York, for its part, is getting this stage version, which premiered in Paris in 2019 and has toured extensively since. It’s hard to fight the sneaking suspicion that we have been shortchanged.

The aviator (Aurélien Bednarek) and the Little Prince (the adult Lionel Zalachas, his blond, spiky hair making him look like Sting in the original “Dune” film) meet cute in the Sahara: one’s plane went down and the other is visiting from a tiny asteroid. As the aviator tries 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 number-crunching businessman (Adrien Picaut), a manipulative snake (Srilata Ray) and a wise fox (Dylan Barone), who delivers one of the story’s most famous lines: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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

The structure lends itself well to a circus-like, vignette-based show because each encounter can become a number, and you can string one after another with minimal interference from a traditional plot. Still, those who have not read the book – and even those who have – may wonder what the heck is going on, and the staging and performances are not strong enough to prevent the mind from wandering to such questions.

A central issue is the leaden onstage narration by Chris Mouron, who also wrote the adaptation and is a co-director with the choreographer Anne Tournié. Cutting an androgynous figure in a green do and a steampunk-butler suit, Mouron haltingly declaims her lines (in English) as if delivering Racine monologues, and effectively sucks all of the potential levity from the show. Like the best children’s literature, Saint-Exupéry’s book is bittersweet, and even touches upon tragedy, but it also has a poetic grace and many touches of surreal humor – few of which are in evidence here.

Instead the show lumbers from one scene to the next, with a few aerial feats and a too-brief apparition by the ring-like apparatus known as a Cyr wheel drowned out by too much bland dancing and way too much of Terry Truck’s recorded neo- Classical, New Agey score. Contributing to the mood – make of that what you wish – are Peggy Housset’s merely serviceable costumes and video design by Marie Jumelin that looks like a Photoshopped jumble of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte paintings, the head-trippy 1970s animated film “Fantastic Planet” and Roger Dean’s illustrations for Yes album covers.

Despite the performers spending time suspended about the stage, the production remains stubbornly earthbound. Until, that is, what turns out to be a somewhat perverse move: the single showstopping scene, in which Antony Cesar flies over the audience, happens after the curtain call, when there is no show to stop anymore.

The Little Prince
Through Aug. 14 at Broadway Theater, Manhattan; thelittleprincebroadway.com; Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

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