When is a timeless children’s tale not quite right for children’s theater? When it is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved and ever-so-slightly surreal 1942 novella, “The Little Prince.” Published following France’s liberation during World War II, the French aristocrat turned military aviator’s story was always something of an adult-oriented, nebulous dreamscape, one in which a tousled-haired young prince travels through space, lands on various planets (including Earth) and touches quietly on topics as nuanced as love and as rough as our loss of humanity and earth’s natural resources.
“The Little Prince” is a lovely, delicate story. But now try to imagine your child sitting through it with gentle quietude.
Enter Anne Tournié. Directed and choreographed by Tournié — a mainstream avant-gardiste renowned for Cirque du Soleil-esque acrobatic, global-dance-theater escapades — and starring a playful international cast, “The Little Prince” at the Broadway Theatre surely was intended to energetically open up its fine dialogue to include children of all ages.
But not so fast. Tournié’s “Little Prince” is given the same French-forward international flair that she’s given “event” productions such as “Franco Dragone: Le Rêve” in Las Vegas and “The House of Dancing Water” in Macau.
That means a soundtrack of highly-layered acousto-electric music inspired by Astor Piazzolla’s torridly askew tango and Laurie Anderson’s icy experimental fuzak. (Chris Mouron, as the Narrator of “Prince,” even has an Anderson-like, sing-song cadence to her voice.)
That means that the interplanetary travels of “The Little Prince” unspool via video projections that are chic without being overly sleek, and allow characters such as The Lamplighter (Marcin Janiak) to climb into the night’s endless skies or across desert shores with grace.
That means aerialists coursing through mid-air, movement artists gliding along the stage and multinational dancers undulating as one.
All this goes on while telling the autobiographical, allegorical tale about a man who fell to earth (Saint-Exupéry was stranded in the Sahara after his plane crashed), a precocious boy who dreamt of flight and looked towards all things good (Saint-Exupéry as a child, though some postulate the character could be Christ), and a teasing muse, Rose (believed to be inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s wife).
Whether you’re an adult or a child (and during my Saturday matinee preview, the Broadway Theatre was kid-packed), much of this amorphous action is messy, confusing and slow in the first act. It’s odd, for instance, that the prince, no more than a slip of a child in the book, is portrayed by a muscular man-child (Lionel Zalachas) with golden locks. For all of his ball-balancing talents and appropriate stares of awe and wonder, he comes off like Harpo Marx.
While the Aviator (Aurélien Bednarek) and the Rose (an exquisite Laurisse Sulty) are closer to the original tale’s poignant view of its time period (and to what Saint-Exupéry’s vision of space and the future looked like), other characters come and go too quickly to appreciate their goals, especially when ineffectively adapted into present-day settings. There’s a selfie-snapping, Joker-smiling Vain Man (Antony Cesar), an overly-frenetic, primary-colored Businessman (Adrien Picaut) and a big-haired Drunkard (Marie Menuge), all of whom make the storyline messier when combined with the Narrator’s slowly rolling, mawkish, refrigerator-magnet poetics. (Narrator Mouron is also the librettist and co-director.)
Along with all that, the aerial dance sequences in the first half of “The Little Prince” are sadly dull — certainly beautiful, but also boring. When a recording artist like Pink can create whole concert tours based on her own athletic use of air-bound acrobatics, this is an art form that must step up its game.
And yet, for all the blur, faux-modernity, wrongheaded bluster and maladroitness of the first half of “The Little Prince,” the second half is brilliant, better paced, hewing to tradition without eschewing its future-forward, dreamlike qualities. It never comes across as a mishmash of influences.
With far less aerial work than the first half, the few moments in act two that do use the uplifts are special, spectral and haunting — there’s even one death-defying bit that comes after the curtain call, like a Marvel post-credits scene. The artist-actors seem freer in the second half, too, as they use a more classically inspired brand of dance (with just a tad of Twyla Tharp-style choreography) in their portrayal of the Snake (Srilata Ray) or the Fox (Dylan Barone).
In both cases, their movements are focused and elegantly finessed, and a second act dance in which the male performers are androgynously attired is particularly potent and inventive. Even composer Terry Truck’s score is less babbling, more tonal and truly ripe with contemporary music passages in league with what’s happening on stage.
For all of the frenzy and wordiness of the first half, the second, quieter half of “The Little Prince” is more radically poetic, experimental and adventurously, genuinely engaging — for children and adults alike.