The curtain for The Little Prince at the barnlike Broadway Theater seems to promise that whatever’s behind it will be faithful to the book. Not only does it say “The Little Prince” right there in loopy letters, but the image includes copyright details: the publisher (Gallimard) and date (1945). It could almost be a blown-up book cover! But do not judge a nouveau cirque show by its curtain. Once that drop goes up, the restrained watercolor charm of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s book is nowhere. And if you don’t know the story already, bonne chance. Saint-Exupéry’s eccentric plot sloshes around inside this dance-theater container, recognizable only to the initiated. By the time our petite hero has shuffled off the mortal coil (reminder: The Little Prince is terrifying!), I would wager only those of us who remembered the book had the faintest idea what was going on.
But come now, I hear you saying, choreographer Anne Tournié’s show is for children. Kids don’t care about conventional storytelling, nor do they want to understand the book since they might absorb some of its subtext about adult frailty and death. Best to elide all that with skipping and swinging, surely? Kids just want to pony up $179 for an orchestra seat to see contemporary-dance acrobatics while a narrator speaks in an accent so impénétrable that they have had to project the text in supertitles. That’s what children yearn for — or at least those whose reading comprehension is at a fourth-grade level but who can still be entertained by a guy wearing a stack of hats pretending to take selfies.
Having occasionally watched a show like this with knee-high theatergoers, I can say that Tournié, a sometime collaborator of Franco Dragone’s, knows a few of the things they do like. Showering the audience in confetti always dazzles ’em, as does physical virtuosity. And after he enters, walking on what looks like a big yoga ball, the star aerialist Lionel Zalachas does some lovely things. Zalachas’s Little Prince, the lonely ruler of an uninhabited asteroid where he has fallen in love with a flower, tends to lift off his feet with delight as he “tells” his story. He meets an aviator (Aurélien Bednarek) in the Sahara, where the latter has crashed his plane, and as the two go mad with thirst, he shares stories of the many strange planets he has already visited — one with that vain hat guy, one with a drunk, another with a lamplighter, and so on. In memory, the prince dances with the flower (Laurisse Sulty), whom he can’t quite forget. When a big white rope descends, he ties himself to it, rising up into choreography that seems as natural to him as falling.
While all this happens, the dozen or so dancers do not speak. Instead, the other star of the show, the narrator Chris Mouron, ambles around pronouncing Frenchily to herself. She is dressed, for some reason, like the mayor of Munchkinland with blue hair, a frock coat, and balloon jodhpurs. This narration is worse than useless. Mouron, who also co-directed the show and wrote the libretto, doesn’t distinguish between characters or even between narration and dialogue, which is somehow more confusing than silence would be. Mouron oversells every sentiment and sometimes sings gloppy songs in French (the music is by Terry Truck). The translated lyrics seem … weird. “You hold sway / Over my island / Over my life,” she sings to the Little Prince, who is simultaneously a child (he wears a chartreuse onesie by costume designer Peggy Housset) and a romantic partner to both the rose and a fox he meets on earth. It all seems perfectly innocent and imaginative until Mouron starts in. “Tame me like you tamed your fox,” she sings. Mon dieu.
A deeper sin, though, is what it looks like. At some point in the Soleil-drenched past, new circus settled on an aesthetic that was a little steampunk, a little bouffon, a little Oz, a little candycore burlesque. Marie Jumelin’s video projections translate this mélange of influences into a cheesy, collage-heavy production design (there are no set pieces, but projections coat every surface), and it looks as if it’s been borrowed from a ’90s educational computer game. The more it tries for wonder — flying birds, whirls of blue cosmos, a field of roses — the more it turns into cheap greeting-card imagery. Do I need to tell you there’s a checkerboard floor at one point? Or that the planets look like they’ve been done in a spray-painting art course? Imagine a backdrop for Eurovision Junior then write “The Little Prince” on it in glowing glitter script. You get it.
Perhaps if The Little Prince weren’t rattling around this gigantic house, its charms might make it past the footlights. With less space to fill, Jumelin’s images might not seem so bad; I can imagine the production thriving at a smaller place like the New Victory (a kid-oriented jewel box) or in a spiegeltent down at the Seaport. And maybe, if it were tucked into a more intimate venue, the producers wouldn’t have used a 20-minute intermission to make it seem like an evening-length show. (Without it, the run time is around 85 minutes.) I’m sure there are calculations about bringing a show to Broadway that has to do with money and cachet, but what about what serves the material? If they’d asked the prince himself, I bet he would have warned them away from 53rd Street. Small homes are best, he would have said. They let you tend to your particular rose, one at a time.
The Little Prince is at the Broadway Theatre.