In between fighting Nazis, the aristocratic French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry penned and illustrated his most famous work, The Little Prince, while exiled in New York after the fall of Paris. Although ostensibly a children’s book, the novella’s musings about love, loneliness, and death speak more to the mind of a middle-aged man who has lost his home and greatly fears never getting it back than someone in need of a bedtime story. Tragically, Saint-Ex, as he was affectionately known by his many admirers, never would return to a free France. An aviator, like the narrator of The Little Prince, he disappeared, in 1944, during a reconnaissance flight for the Allies.
As if to pointedly emphasize its Frenchiness, the touring stage adaptation of Saint-Ex’s work, now on Broadway after far-flung stops in Sydney, Dubai, and, of course, Paris, includes a large projected note on the theater’s curtain that reassures us it is based on the 1945 Gallimard imprint rather than an earlier French text published in the United States. Unfortunately, for those sorry souls who haven’t read either version or any of the hundreds of translations, it’s, at best, pointless pedantic comfort, since the show can’t possibly make sense to them. I could barely track everything that was happening, even after rereading The Little Prince the day before seeing the show. Though, to be honest, it was a 1943 English-language copy (quel dommage!)
In truth, it’s irrelevant whether the source material came directly from Saint-Ex’s hand or a translator, since the production itself excises so much of the titular character’s journey in favor of Cirque-du-Soleil-style aerial acrobatics, dance numbers, and other visual distractions. Still, to be fair, recent readers of The Little Prince should be able to follow the basic outline of that journey: an aviator (Aurélien Bednarek) crash lands in the Sahara Desert, where he meets an endearingly enigmatic petite royale (Lionel Zalachas) who recounts his travels through the cosmos, which were preceded by his affectionate departure from a rose (Laurisse Sulty) on his home asteroid. After bidding this heartfelt so-long, he visits a bunch of single-occupier planets where, among other strange individuals, he encounters a king without a kingdom (Joän Bertrand), a manically overworked lamplighter (Marcin Janiak) on an itty-bitty world in which day and night are only separated by a minute; and a businessman (Adrien Picaut) who has convinced himself that he owns the stars. Then, on Earth, he converses with a snake (Srilata Ray) in a manner that is a decidedly defanged departure from Saint-Ex’s book.
Confusingly, the show’s co-director and librettist (text chopper-upper?) Chris Mouron narrates the story, or, rather, disconnected chunks of it, with not much care for distinguishing between the characters’ voices. It’s as if Mouron, with her breathy, over-the-top delivery, only values demonstrating how much The Little Prince personally means to her without actually being willing to delve into the difficult issues Saint-Ex explored. And, for some, it will be even more problematic that by inserting herself as the narrator, Mouron turns the aviator and the rest of the cast into glorified mimes. That’s very French, too, but, sadly, not very good.
Essentially, Mouron boils the story down to a couple lines about love and beauty, while eliding any sense of the loss, isolation, and dread that the novella also poetically conveys. Her little prince is a man-child incapable of engaging with life’s pain rather than Saint-Ex’s courageously inquisitive child-man who can’t help but look for happiness in sorrow and vice versa. In the absence of this existential heft, the production makes room for co-director Anne Tournié’s, admittedly, often charming choreography. A pas de deux between Zalachas and Sulty is particularly lovely, thanks in part to the latter’s stunning, and protean, red dress from costume designer Peggy Housset.
But, despite its aesthetic merits, Tournié’s choreography mostly feels like a hollow exercise creatively divorced from Mouron’s narration, as well as Marie Jumelin’s stage-dominating video projections. This disappointing collection of screensaver-like dreamscapes makes one long for the simplicity of Saint-Ex’s original drawings. As for composer Terry Truck’s score, it tinkles along pleasantly enough, just without much emotional impact.
The intent of everyone involved in the production, especially Mouron in her emo-ringmaster get-up, seems to have been to soften Saint-Ex’s philosophical edges for the children in the audience. But this approach blatantly undermines one of the resonant arguments of The Little Prince: that our profound questions about this mortal coil are with us from the beginning until, with age, we start ignoring them as a way of protecting ourselves from the answers. So, if the tykes around me looked somewhat less engaged than their adult companions, well, as Saint-Ex might argue, maybe it’s because they recognized life is far more complex than what was put in front of them at the Broadway Theatre.
The Little Prince (April 11 – May 8, 2022)
Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.thelittleprincebroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes including one 20 minute intermission