Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A visually charming Little Prince

Wil Moser, Laura Jo Trexler, and Andrew Barbato chart the stars in The Little Prince.  Photos: Andrew Brilliant.

Whenever I hear that another composer and lyricist are adapting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic The Little Prince for the stage - well, I used to scream "Noooooo!" at such moments, but now I just shrug. Because I know the project is doomed. If you doubt me, simply survey the many fallen Princes littering the landscape like "winsome" ruins (dozens of dramatic adaptations, a movie musical, several stage musicals, and a couple of operas and ballets). Look on these works, pop composers, and despair!

So going into the New Rep's new version of this legendary property, I already knew that the music was going to be bad. Of course it was going to be bad; how could it not be bad, when our pop-musical "voice" (if you can call it that) swings between cool, narcissistic irony and schmaltzy, narcissistic uplift (both of which the gallant author of The Little Prince would have despised)?

Still, several adaptors have gotten a good deal closer to expressing Saint-Exupéry's charmingly sombre appeal than composer Rick Cummins and lyricist John Scoullar have. It's not that their score is bad, exactly - it's pretty much standard-issue in every way. But that's just the problem. The soaring but uninspired themes, the rippling arpeggios, the "sensitive" chord progressions . . . you've heard it all before. And it's all nice enough - it's just utterly beside the point (and the plunking keyboard arrangement here doesn't help). Sigh. Anyone who liked this score could never understand how a seeming drawing of a hat could actually be of an elephant inside a boa constrictor . . .

One of many striking visuals.
But whenever the music stops, the New Rep's version has its sudden compensations. The design, for instance, is simply divine - particularly Matthew Lazure's evocative set and props, which diverge in style from the author's famous watercolors, but nevertheless cleverly tie together his themes (while Chelsea Kerl's costumes consistently charm). And director Ilyse Robbins for the most part resists the saccharine blandishments of the score, and comes up with one striking visual after another (as in the Little Prince's first appearance, at right).

Robbins also draws affecting performances from her entire cast. Alas, the usually reliable Nick Sulfaro doesn't read as experienced enough to conjure much of the persona of Saint-Exupéry (who survived several plane crashes - including one in the Sahara during which he probably first hallucinated the beginnings of his masterpiece).  

But young Wil Moser is just about perfect as the gravely sincere visitor who travels from Asteroid B-612 to discover certain truths about life and love; and newcomer Laura Jo Trexler does witty work as both his beloved Rose and the Snake who obligingly ends his journey.  Best of all is the versatile Andrew Barbato, who etches several crisp cameos of vanity and conceit before playing the lonely Fox who longs to be tamed with a frisky, neurotic sweetness that makes you forget all your doubts about the show. Indeed, during Moser and Barbato's gambols, I sometimes could have sworn I heard in the laughter of the crowd the chiming chuckle of the Little Prince.

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