“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” These words, spoken by the eponymous hero to his castaway companion in The Little Prince, apply as much to the magic of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved novella as they do to the magic of theater. Sometimes, in a great production, less is more. The viewer is left to imagine in their mind’s eye what the production leaves out. On the whole, the Broadway Theatre’s production of The Little Prince, co-directed by longtime collaborators Anne Tournié and Chris Mouron, embraces a sense of restraint, though not always in the right places.
The story of The Little Prince is simple: A magical boy travels through the stars, meeting odd characters on various lonely planets until he lands on Earth, where he encounters a stranded aviator, who tells his story. Tournié and Mouron’s production, for the most part, follows that simplicity. Only one member of the cast has any sort of speaking or singing role (the narrator, an older incarnation of the Aviator, played by Mouron), and the rest are aerial performers and acrobats, speaking through dance. No physical set is present on stage, save for a pair of cotton aerial ropes hanging from the rafters. Instead, digital images are projected onto a massive backdrop.
And that’s where The Little Prince seems to lose the magic of its source material. Surreal 3-D renderings of airplanes, planets, stars, trains, and roses distract from the beauty of the dancers in front of them. The images bear no resemblance to de Saint-Exupéry’s charming illustrations, though the production would benefit if they did.
When the Prince first rolls in, balancing with bare feet on a multicolored ball, those who remember the original drawings would take the ball to be the Prince’s tiny planet. But moments later, that distracting digital screen displays a literal landscape of enormous proportions. Like the screen itself, strangely modern elements, including a Wall Street-like businessman crunching numbers and a vain character constantly snapping selfies, feel out of place.
The Little Prince’s strengths, however, lie in its dancing and acrobatics. Tournié’s choreography harkens back to the long tradition of French circus acts, when aerialists would wow audiences with feats of agility. The Prince himself, played by Lionel Zalachas, certainly dazzles as he flies around suspended in mid-air, teleporting from planet to planet. Zalachas brings a childlike whimsy and curiosity to the role that the rest of the production lacks. His love interest, a rose from his home world brought to life by Laurisse Sulty, joins him in aerial ballet. The two make up the show’s most heartbreaking and enchanting scene when the Prince must leave on his voyage and say goodbye.
The Prince and the Rose’s love is so captivating in part because Tournié and Mouron’s script explores it in more detail than the book did. That makes the script all the more frustrating whenever it deviates too far from its source, sometimes leaving out crucial details, like the Rose’s vanity (every rose has its thorn, except this one). For those in the audience who did not read The Little Prince, it may be unclear why he felt the need to leave his home planet in the first place. Time spent on selfie-takers could better have been used to capture the nuance of that romance, or even the Aviator’s friendship with the Prince, the vehicle for the entire story, which is hardly explored at all.
Since its publication in 1943, The Little Prince has remained magical for all ages in part because of its simplicity. But the translation to Broadway seems confused — the production doesn’t know whether it’s intended for all ages or just for adults, based on the few moments of humor. It loses track of what makes The Little Prince so appealing and so timeless: Its reverence for childhood, its outlandish sense of irony, and its comfort to anyone in need of a friend. Those essential elements, as the Little Prince says, are invisible to the eye.
-Ivan De Luce