“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” a fox tells the little prince. “It’s only visible to the heart.”
The line is from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved 1943 novella, “The Little Prince.” It’s also on a t-shirt that’s selling in the lobby of the Broadway Theater during the four-month run in New York of this touring stage version by a French creative team, all of whom are making their Broadway debuts. The line is unintentionally ironic when the narrator utters it on stage, though, because this “The Little Prince,” — half dance-theater, half circus acrobatics — is a half-hearted theatrical adaptation that’s almost entirely visual. There are very few words, and they are upstaged by the vivid video projections that serve as backdrops. The only character who speaks is the narrator, mostly in English but sometimes in French*, portrayed by Chris Mouron, who also wrote the libretto (such as it is) and co-directed the production.
As for whether the show has heart. Some theatergoers will think so. The creative team has said so in interviews. The only place I found an abundance of heart was the confetti in the shape of little red hearts that descends in bulk on our heads after the curtain call. This is right after an acrobat dressed as an aviator swings out in mid-air right above our heads in the orchestra – the first (and last) time anybody ventures out from the proscenium.
If it seems odd that they make us wait until the show is officially over to present the most literally heart-filled gesture and most eye-catching stunt, it’s just one of the many aspects of this adaptation that didn’t feel fully thought out. “The Little Prince” is set to an original score by Terry Truck, but the music is canned rather than played by a live orchestra, and features insistent underscoring of the sort you’d hear during suspenseful moments in TV cop shows. The show replaces the often enigmatic verbal exchanges in the book with physical movement and dazzling visuals, making it in theory more accessible to young children (It’s officially recommended for age 5 and older), but then makes it way too long for most of them (an hour and 50 minutes including intermission.)
The piece is more or less faithful to the general outline of the book: An aviator (Aurélien Bernarek) who crashes in the desert meets the little prince (Lionel Zalachas), who recounts (through the narrator) meeting a variety of characters on their own small planets: a rose (Laurisse Sulty), a king (Joän Bertrand), a vain man (Antony Cesar, who in this version is obsessed with taking selfies), a drunkard (Marie Menuge), a lamplighter (Marcin Janiak, who must constantly light and extinguish the lamp because on his planet day lasts just a minute), a snake (Srilata Ray, impressively slithering mid-air along a rope), a fox (Dylan Barone, in the most captivating of the duets.) But it too often replaces the simple, playful tone with something more soaring and self-serious, yet at the same time obscures what Saint-Exupéry’s biographer has seen as the underlying serious lessons learned from these encounters – “on friendship, love, technological progress, consumption and the decay of modern society.”
All fourteen members of the cast are making their Broadway debuts, and they are lithe, adept dancers or acrobats. Lionel Zalachas, the blond-wigged acrobat who largely shows off his skills at aerial straps, has (mutely) portrayed the title role since 2018, as the show has toured to Paris, Dubai and Sydney. He’s certainly great to watch. It’s taking nothing away from the talents and appeal of this ensemble to say that the best thing about this adaptation of “The Little Prince” is that it will encourage people afterward to read (or reread) the book.
The Little Prince
Broadway Theater through August 14, 2022. (Update: it will now close May 8)
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, including an intermission
Tickets: $49-$219 ($35 rush)
Direction and Choreography by Anne Tournié Adaptation and Co-Direction by Chris Mouron Music by Terry Truck Assistant Choreography by Noellie Bordelet Costume Design By Peggy Housset Video Design By Marie Jumelin Video Projection By Etienne Beaussart Lighting Design By Stephane Fritsch Sound Design By Tristan Viscogliosi Hair and Makeup By Carmen Arbues Miro Props By Aurélie Gandilhon
Cast: Lionel Zalachas, Chris Mouron, Aurélien Bednarek, Dylan Barone, Laurisse Sulty, Antony Cesar, Adrien Picaut, Marie Menuge, Marcin Janiak, Srilata Ray, Joän Bertrand, William John Banks, Christian Denice, George Sanders, Iris Beaumier, Pawel Walczewski and Madison Ward.
*It is to this production’s credit — and something that Broadway could learn from — that every word is captioned in English, on screens on either side of the stage.