Once, when I was six years old I read a magnificent story. It was called The Little Prince, and if its narrative wasn’t a marvel of clarity, still it struck me for the storyteller’s extraordinary sense of wonder. An aviator who had once longed to be an artist told of the time he crashed his plane in the vast Sahara; there, on a windswept dune, he met an intriguing little man from another planet—a Little Prince who, with his deceptively simple stories about knee-high volcanos and vainglorious roses and sundry ridiculous men, reminded the Aviator of the difference between so-called “matters of consequence” and the genuinely important things in life. In the 52 years since its publication, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s poignant fable has been re-imagined many times, most recently as a motion picture and a stage musical. I haven’t seen the film (though I hear unpleasant things about it), but I can say from experience that the Olney Theatre’s new production of the musical adaptation doesn’t quite capture the charm of the book.
There’s much that’s good at Olney—Christopher Pickart’s outstanding set, John Scoullar’s sensitive story adaptation, Rick Cummins’ often delightful score—but what’s missing is that crucial sense of wonder. Christopher Rath, as the Aviator, tries too hard to summon it, and director Jim Petosa doesn’t seem to grasp that it is the Aviator’s capacity for wonder, not the elusive religio-mythic figure who rekindles it in him, that gives resonance to Saint-Exupéry’s story.
The central lesson in The Little Prince is that we adults don’t always spend enough time establishing connections to the people and things we call our own—that “the taming of things,” or more generally, the joint investment of self in a relationship, is “an act too often neglected.” But it isn’t the Little Prince’s regret at leaving behind the fox he tames nor his pining for the distant rose upon whom he once lavished such attention that teaches this lesson. It is the Aviator’s apprehension of these things—his eventual understanding of these small mysteries and his own piercing grief at the finality of the Little Prince’s departure—that carries the weight of Saint-Exupéry’s message. Yes, the Prince performs the magic, but it’s the Aviator—the adult, the us in the tale—who comes away transformed, and so he is necessarily the one who must carry the show. Tall and rangy in his coveralls and flight jacket, Rath is an engaging presence, but he isn’t up to the burden. He’s constantly digging for emotions rather than being surprised by them; neither his sorrow nor his joy seems organic.
As the Little Prince—the messianic figure who descends from the heavens, works his miracle, and sacrifices himself to return to the one he left behind—Matthew Mezzacappa acquits himself reasonably well. The part has a daunting number of lines for a child actor, which Mezzacappa handles with aplomb, but it also requires him to negotiate several complex songs, in which he sounds a trifle underpowered; whatever his other skills, he’s no belter, and Olney’s occasionally cantankerous amplification only underscores the thin sound of his upper register. And for some reason, Mezzacappa and Rath never really warm to each other; their affection seems forced, which may be another reason this production never quite clicks.
Bev Appleton is alternately amusing and annoying as various subsidiary characters—a single-minded businessman, an uncommonly accommodating king, a fox more wise than wily. His Conceited Man is unnecessarily, almost offensively, fey, a quality absent from both book and script. Jill Geddes, though, is a delight as the Rose, whose demands drive the Little Prince from his planet and to whom (he learns) he ultimately must return. She’s enjoyably saucy at the outset, and honestly bereaved when her keeper decides to abandon her.
Her singing voice is a dream, silvery and light and perfectly controlled. “I Love You, Goodbye” is probably the show’s musical high point, both for Geddes’ performance and for the delicious hint of ambiguity it adds to what is otherwise a necessarily reductive adaptation (nuances tend to fall by the wayside when you add 18 songs to a story), but “I Love You, Goodbye” actually raises new questions about the Aviator’s past and the women—mother? lover?—he may have left behind. Geddes also plays (with no little relish) the glittering, insidious Snake, in a costume so far over the top that designer Stacia Reinhardt must’ve grown giddy just thinking it up.
Of several well-constructed songs, the Little Prince/Rose duet “What a Beautiful…” is the most exuberant; “Day After Day,” in which the Prince tames the Fox, is the cleverest (evocative agitato figures in the piano’s left hand echo Appleton’s vulpine growls). The Aviator’s uninspired signature piece grows stale after the second of its four appearances, though, and the Snake’s sinuous ditty is pretty much tuneless.
One other thing: I was 27 when I first read The Little Prince, not six. Tradition and authorial intent to the contrary, this isn’t a children’s story, except on the surface. There were querulous noises being made all over the house on press night; they were coming from the under-12 set who were understandably entranced by the color and the flash and the romance, but who couldn’t quite figure out what all this “taming” business had to do with space travel and princes and talking plants.CP