Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book “The Little Prince” has charmed several generations of children but eluded the efforts of several teams of would-be adaptors, notably Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe for filmmaker Stanley Donen in the ’70s; Hugh Wheeler, Don Black and John Barry for a Broadway flop that closed in previews in the ’80s; and most recently, a poorly received Off Broadway account featuring a score by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar. Undaunted, Arthur Perlman and Jeffrey Lunden have tackled this tale of a pilot stranded in the desert and his visitor from a small asteroid. The happy news is that this team has mostly succeeded where others have come up short: Their “Little Prince” has its own charms, and it’s presented by Theaterworks/USA with a simplicity that is quite beguiling.
If the names are familiar, it’s because Perlman and Lunden are the team behind “Wings,” the remarkable transformation of Arthur Kopit’s difficult play into one of the most compelling chamber musicals of recent seasons. Their strength is in combining accessible, often catchy melodies and witty lyrics, and with “The Little Prince” they’ve kept things very simple. The story is changed from the first person (it’s told by the aviator) to the third, and it has been literally defanged — there’s no snake at the end to prompt the prince’s heavenly dispatch. That’s a shame, as it denies children the sad, if wistful, closure the story provides.
On the other hand, the musical suggests somewhat more strongly than the story that the Little Prince (Jo Ellen Constine) is really the aviator’s (Eric Stapleton) younger self, the one who drew a picture of a boa constrictor consuming an elephant but ultimately relented when all the adults saw was a hat, and became an adult himself. There’s a little bit of Peter Pan here, and a little bit of the Wizard of Oz, too (as in the prince’s realization that “the something I was looking for/Is the very thing I left behind”).
Ted Pappas’ Story Theater-style production, designed by James Noone is equally simple and charming: A pair of red stepladders on their sides makes an airplane, a couple of blue curtains with stars form a cyclorama, and if you need Saturn, a ball inside a hula hoop will suffice.
The company — which includes Cyndi Logan as the pouty Rose, Bruce Barney as the Fox and Andrew C. Pudvah as the Bird who takes the prince from planet to planet — is earnest and generally delightful.
Theaterworks plans to send two companies of the show out on tour after the brief New York run; it should do well as a family draw.