The Little Prince

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday November 25, 2014

Nick Sulfaro as The Aviator in 'The Little Prince,' continuing through Dec. 21 at the New Rep
Nick Sulfaro as The Aviator in 'The Little Prince,' continuing through Dec. 21 at the New Rep  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The musical stage adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupry's beloved book "The Little Prince" ("Le Petit Prince"), currently enjoying a run at the New Repertory Theater in Watertown, offers some remarkable design and stagecraft. It also gives us local actor, playwright, and composer Andrew Barbato in various small roles (his interplanetary Businessman is the business!) and, more importantly, in the juicy role of The Fox. Barbato is hilarious, touching, and convincingly feral as the animal that teaches the Prince - a visitor to Earth from an asteroid no bigger than an exurban McMansion - all about relationships, particularly the thorny feelings the Prince has for a rose he left behind when he took to the stars, eventually landing in Earth's Sahara Desert.

Those are the best parts of the production, which, overall, is okay -- but, honestly, just okay -- as long as it sticks to the book, but which is saddled with a clutch of mediocre songs (music by Rick Cummins, lyrics by John Scoullar). By the time Act One ends, you're ready for the desert snake to slither out, deliver the all-important chomp, and dispatch both Prince and audience to their respective homes.

Laura Jo Trexler and Wil Moser in 'The Little Prince'
Laura Jo Trexler and Wil Moser in 'The Little Prince'  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Act Two is a completely different story: Lively and brisk (up until the saccharine, too-long final scenes, anyway), and propelled by Barbato's frisky fox, Act Two's sense of straightforward fun and immense charm is what one looks for from the start. (Even the songs improve... here and there.)

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself, expecting that any reader of this review will be familiar with Saint-Exupry's tale. The short novel this play is based upon tells the story of a mail plane pilot (Nick Sulfaro) who, after an emergency landing in the desert, is racing the clock to repair his plane before his water runs out. Improbably, the Aviator meets a blond-headed boy wearing a scarf. The boy (Wil Moser) never seems to worry about hunger or thirst; this might have something to do with his claim of being an extraterrestrial whose home world (the afore-mentioned tiny asteroid) features two volcanoes (three, if you count the extinct one), rogue baobab trees (which he continually yanks up before the can take root and shatter his asteroid), and one wildflower - the beautiful, demanding rose (Laura Jo Trexler).

The rose is delicate, boastful, jealous, preening... all the things you might expect a woman to be as viewed from a certain mid-20th century, heterosexual male perspective. The combination of her mysteriously affecting beauty and her unreasonable demands suffices to dive the Prince away from his own little planet, setting him on a journey in which he encounters a succession of respectable adults (a king, an "important personage," a lamplighter, and the businessman) and grows increasingly skeptical that their focus on "practical" things is worthwhile. Meantime, he's unable to forget the rose he's left behind. (It's really a pity that the play does not retain the single line from the book that summarizes the Prince's complex, overwhelming feelings about the rose: "Cette fleur," he reflects in Chapter 8, "est bien complique." Mais oui.)

Wil Moser and Andrew Barbato in 'The Little Prince'
Wil Moser and Andrew Barbato in 'The Little Prince'  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

When he reaches Earth, the Prince encounters a variety of more sensible creatures, including a venomous snake and a vine full of roses, the same sort as he left behind (both played by Trexler), and Barbato's fox, who advises the young traveler about relationships. He doesn't talk about "trust," or "communication," but rather how love and friendship boil down to people "taming" one another, a process that results in love and intimacy. It's all very sweet, childlike, and European, and the aviator, hearing the tale, is led back to the sureties he himself unwillingly left behind in the process of growing up.

The issue of the songs aside, the play has a hard time sustaining the simplicity of the book's fairy-tale charm. In large part, this comes down to length; as a two-act venture running nearly two and a half hours, the material is stretched past its natural limits. A one-act, 90-minute format would be friendlier to the source text.

To be fair, however, the play's scenic design, by Matthew Lazure, is wonderfully realized, a perfect blending of the fantastical and the navigational: Maps, compasses, and charts inform the look of the set and props (even a model airplane and a chair sport white latitude-and-longitude grids against a sky-blue backdrop). Rear projections onto a circular cutout in the back wall range from a North arrow to an artist's hand replicating the book's iconic drawings and, in a moment of climactic tension, a heartbreaking turn played out in silhouette. The costumes and props are equally well realized (and the issue of costuming is not insignificant, given the number of quick-changes Barbato must accomplish as he hops from role to role, and the speed at which he must pull them off).

Nick Sulfaro and Wil Moser in 'The Little Prince'
Nick Sulfaro and Wil Moser in 'The Little Prince'  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The actors all seem perfect for their parts. Sulfaro strikes a balance between enraptured kid-at-heart and dissatisfied adult whose unrealized artistic impulses still exert a powerful pull over him. Moser sports a shock of blond hair that's perfect for the Little Prince, and he finds the right notes for the character - not nave, but also not jaded, slightly alien in his thinking and perceptions but not a clich of the fish out of water. Trexler embraces her roles (she also plays, briefly, an somewhat airheaded desert plant) with relish; she's asked to portray female characters in ways that could come across as insulting, but she finds a sweet and genuine core to work from in each of her interpretations, and her rose is a creature undone not by silly vanity as much as by brittle pride - a failing with which anyone of either gender can identify.

It would be too harsh to say this play fails, but neither does it quite succeed, coming over a little like the downed airplane the Aviator spends much of his time tinkering with: It just won't fly. Just the same, the care and craftsmanship that went into the production impresses, and that includes Todd C. Gordon's musical direction and director Ilyse Robbins' eagle eye for detail.


"The Little Prince" continues through Dec. 21 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. For tickets and information, please visit http://www.newrep.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.