Review of Theatre Calgary's production of The Little Prince, in association with Lamplighter Drama, London, UK; January 19 - February 28, 2016 at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, AB.
Theatre Calgary's The Little Prince is pretty to look at, but unsatisfying overall
Superb cast performances and visually stunning presentation cannot salvage poorly written musical
Watching Theatre Calgary’s world premiere musical, The Little Prince reminded me of a few dates I’ve been on lately. Leading up to the dates there was a lot of excitement (eg. stimulating text conversations, etc) and the evenings started off well. A lot of boys I’ve dated were pretty to look at, but midway through the dates it became clear they were too complicated and/or crazy for my liking. By the end of the dates I realized I wasn’t interested in them at all. That pretty sums up my viewing experience of The Little Prince.
For the past year, there has been sensational buzz surrounding the premiere of Little Prince, which Theatre Calgary has produced in association with Lamplighter Drama. One of the main reasons for all this buzz is that this musical adaptation of the classic children’s novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is co-conceived by Nicholas Lloyd Webber, son of the great Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Even though no one actually knew anything about Nicholas, the fact that the Lloyd Webber name is attached to this production has been enough to generate significant international interest. After all, with the Lloyd Webber name associated with the world premiere of a show, there’s bound to be high expectations, including hopes that the show will eventually move to Broadway.
Canadian productions have accomplished this feat before. Let’s not forget that The Drowsy Chaperone started off as a Toronto Fringe show presentation and eventually became a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
I myself was super pumped about the opening of The Little Prince. With a Lloyd Webber in the mix and a cast and creative team of some of the top talent in the industry, how could this production not be a win? Well, like some of my recent dates, disappointment was coming my way.
The plot of The Little Prince involves a pilot (Adam Brazier) who crashes his plane in the Sahara desert. There he meets a Little Prince (Sarah Caraher) who has traveled from a far-off asteroid. We learn that the Little Prince was lonely on his asteroid, having only one friend, a rose.
This rose (who is able to sing and talk) became too demanding and the Little Prince soon suspected he was being taken advantage of. In an attempt to find a true friend, the Little Prince embarked on a journey to other asteroids, until he landed in the Sahara desert on earth.
Once on earth, the Little Prince meets a villainous snake (Louise Pitre) who convinces him to agree to a suspicious sounding deal. When the Pilot arrives, the snake informs him that the Little Prince holds the key to fixing his plane so he can return home. It is then that the Pilot focuses his interest on The Little Prince and in his attempt to survive, learns from the Little Prince’s wisdom.
The way the story is presented in Theatre Calgary’s production seems overly complicated and on opening night, you could sense the frustration in the audience as viewers struggled to put together the pieces of what was happening.
For example, in the book the Little Prince travels to six different asteroids. In the show, all six of these experiences are combined into one confusing musical number. Had I not known the story ahead of time, I probably would have been completely puzzled by this section of the show.
One of the risks taken by the show’s creators, Lloyd Webber and James D. Reid, is that the majority of the show is sung through. Therefore, if you miss some of the lyrics, you could be left out in the dark. This happens repeatedly in group numbers as well as in many of the Little Prince’s vocal parts, which are often constrained to the upper soprano register. While Caraher sounded beautiful, it was sometimes difficult to understand all her lyrics – which are vital to understanding the story.
Remember how I said that besides being too complicated for my liking, some of my past dates have turned out to be crazy? Well there were some odd choices made in the show that made me question the show’s sanity. For example, near the end of the second act, the Snake steps out of her costume piece for no apparent reason. From that point on, she appears to just be a normal human. Also very confusing is the costuming of the Pleiades girls, a chorus of dancing stars (essentially this show's version of a Greek chorus). They look more like dancing Q-tips than stars.
The most unsettling piece of the show is the strange turn of events near the end of the second act, when all of the sudden the show brings up some sort of weird relationship the Pilot has with some unknown woman back home – something that is never explained in the show.
To add further bizarreness, Elicia Mackenzie, who plays the Rose in the show, also plays this strange woman that the Pilot seems to realize he’s in love with. And even though he never once brought her up until that point, he feels so passionately about her that it warrants him singing Water for the Heart, which is probably one of the most spectacular male vocal solos in the history of musical theatre.
Although the song is excellent and Braizer blows the roof off the Max Bell Theatre with his sensational performance, it all seems too out of the blue and overly dramatic for a plotline that basically appeared out of nowhere. Sure, we saw this strange woman singing briefly at the top of the first act as the Pilot was flying his plane, but we couldn’t actually understand what she was singing about, and her character and relationship to the Pilot was never really discussed. In the book, there is absolutely no mention of the Pilot having a girlfriend or a wife, so this aspect of the show is puzzling and to be quite blunt…crazy.
Another choice I wasn’t a fan of, was having a woman play the Little Prince. True, Peter Pan is always played by a woman. However, back in the day when Broadway legend Mary Martin flew across Neverland, it was a foreign concept to risk having a child star in a major show. But then in the 1970’s Annie took the stage. Billy Elliots pirouetted their way to worldwide stardom in the 2000s. And these days, kids are owning the stage in Matilda.
I understand how much trouble it would have been to search the country for a few amazingly talented kids to share the role of the Little Prince. And dealing with stage parents isn’t always a barrel of fun. However, it’s worth the investment, because it adds authenticity to the performances. No matter how great a full-grown actress is, she usually isn’t convincing enough to make you believe she’s an actual boy. And with a show like Little Prince, which is banking on children relating to the title character, this type of personal connection with the Little Prince is essential. While Caraher is alright, I felt the lack of authenticity of a real child onstage was very prevalent.
In general, all the performances in Little Prince are strong, and seeing this show is a wonderful opportunity to see some exquisite talent. As the Pilot, Brazier brings the down the house with his magnificent performance. His voice is stunning and every note he delivers is Broadway magic (he really has been on Broadway!). And he’s not the only Broadway veteran onstage. The great Louise Pitre, who I saw play Edith Piaf in the musical Piaf at Theatre Calgary when I was a child, rocks the house as the Snake. Another standout performance is Jennie Neumann’s sassy portrayal of the Fox.
There’s a lot of fun musical numbers in the show, thanks to Lisa Steven’s clever choreography, including a sexy French-inspired routine in a rose garden, where the female and male ensemble get to strut their stuff in rose costumes. Kudos to ensemble members Jena VanElslander and Julio Fuentes for their standout dancing. However – don’t get too excited. On opening night, the dancing wasn’t clean. There seemed to be discrepancy with details in the choreography, especially with the timing and arms. Dance Captain VanElslander will have some cleaning up to do with her dancers.
The music as a whole is pretty good, with a number of different music styles to keep us entertained and to inspire fun choreography. Some of the lyrics are a little odd though. For example, at one point the Snake sings about how difficult it is every day to decide which socks to wear. While this was obviously meant as a joke, it seemed lame. And the fact that I only heard one or two people in the audience laugh at this joke on opening night, proves I'm not alone in thinking this.
The show is directed by Theatre Calgary’s Artistic Director, Dennis Garnhum and his staging does exhibit some great creativity. The opening sequence where the ensemble members bring together set pieces to create a flying plane is true theatre magic. There’s also a couple of sections in the show where Garnhum has invoked audience participation by having the audience shine little light-up sheep on lanyards handed out by the ushers at the door, producing the illusion of being in space.
So clearly, there are some excellent aspects of the show – outstanding performances and choreography, and great music and direction. However, as stated earlier, the show’s story is difficult to digest, there are some bizarre elements and most importantly, there’s a spark missing in this show that leaves you feeling unsatisfied.
The biggest problem is that it’s impossible to connect with any of the characters in the show. I almost connected with the Pilot, but as soon as that strange storyline with his weird love interest came up, I was confused.
Judging by the reaction of the children in the audience on opening night, kids will not relate to the Little Prince. As mentioned earlier, the fact that the Little Prince isn’t played by a boy causes the character to lose the authenticity aspect. However, and I’m not entirely sure if this is due to Caraher’s performance or the way the show is written – or perhaps a combination of both – the Little Prince just doesn’t seem childlike enough…or likeable at all.
He comes across as being very demanding, judgmental, arrogant and self-absorbed. At the end, when we are asked to feel sympathy for his character, it is very challenging.
So then, like my dating life, this is yet another experience to move on from. While some people and things may seem pretty at first glance, once you get to know them, they can end up being disappointing. What do I feel lies ahead for The Little Prince's journey? This is a piece of art in development and like people, art can change over time. I'm sure there will be revisions made after this production, and who knows - maybe this show will make it to Broadway in the future after all. Time will tell. But for right now, The Little Prince and I are just not a match.
The Little Prince runs at the Max Bell Theatre in the Arts Commons until February 28. Visit Theatre Calgary's website for more information.