There’s a firm distinction between very good children’s theater and great children’s theater. And the dividing line between good and great comes down to the unquantifiable aspect of “magic,” in which the spell cast onstage reels in the adults with the same jubilance and energy as it does the younger folks in the house. And there are moments of real, true magic in Bristol Riverside Theater’s “The Little Prince,” adapted from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic story by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar. Director Scott Hitz’s choice to tell the story via the interactions between naturalistic performers and personality-packed puppets goes a long way in highlighting the play’s ruminations on the best parts of childhood, both lost and found. While there are some unclear choices and jarring moments, on the whole it’s an excellent and spellbinding evening for both adults and children.
This adaptation follows Saint-Exupery’s book fairly closely in plot: an aviator (Lenny Haas) crashes his biplane in the Sahara desert, and in the midst of his struggle to survive, encounters a young boy, the prince of his very own asteroid, on an extended year-long visit to Earth. The Prince (the agile Leila Ghaznavi) is an incredibly precocious and cute little puppet, as are most of the designs throughout the show. Monkey Boy Productions, the puppet designers, are famous for their work on “Avenue Q” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” among others. The Prince is all button eyes and a tawny mop of fiery red hair and then, about five minutes in, you forget you’re watching a talented young woman with a complex collection of felt on her arm, and performer and automaton meld into one captivating character.
It’s pretty incredible, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the Prince’s interactions with the Aviator, stuck in the middle of the desert and equally trapped in his own mire of adulthood. But the Prince draws the Aviator’s creativity and youthful spirit out, first via a number of drawings of sheep (it makes a lot of sense, I promise) and then through a series of conversations about travel, life, and love, told through flashbacks, puppetry, and impressive set transformation.
Of special note is the relationship between the Prince and his Rose back home on his asteroid, played with Miss Piggy-esque pomp and circumstance by Carol Anne Raffa and a delightfully expressive puppet. It’s all about the Prince trying to take care of his exasperating love, a high-maintenance flower with dependency issues and a thorny demeanor. But then, we get a little glimpse into the past of the Aviator, and the real nature of the story we’re being told is revealed as a series of subtle links between the Prince and the Aviator, laid out, little by little. It’s in this tactic that the real wonder and potential greatness of this play is held; there are big questions being asked in this play, about where our childhoods go, why we have to let go of what we treasure, what happens to what we hold dear once we discard them, and, of course, the price we have to pay to regain the things we lose.
The comic counterpoint to this discussion is played with bombast and sincerity by Marc Petrosino’s “Men in Planets,” a litany of rulers of individual heavenly bodies encountered by the Prince on his way to earth. Each one is a gem of individual characterization and ingenious puppetry spectacle, with transformations, lights, and little bits of sleight-of-hand holding the children in the audience rapt. There’s also a fun, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion to the film “Cast Away” in this sequence, drawing a connection between the Aviator’s desert marooning and Tom Hanks’ character. Hint: keep your eye on the volleyball.
The best moments of “The Little Prince” belong to the Fox (Michael Schupbach), encountered and then tamed by Prince. The 10 minutes we spend watching the Fox and the Prince feel each other out and build a friendship might be the most unashamedly heart-melting sequence I’ve had in a theater in the last year or so. I caught myself grinning ear-to-ear, stuck in the moment. Schupbach’s puppy-dog adorable performance and rascally charm really bring out the connection between the two. Several days later I find myself laughing at how attached I found myself getting to a few stuffed animals talking to each other. But it’s more than that. The play’s really at its best when the spectacle and expected nature of children’s programming is tossed aside for quiet conversations between these puppets we’ve grown to accept as people.
All in all, it’s a beautiful performance, marred only slightly in the moments when the production doesn’t quite trust itself enough to let the talents of the performers tell the story. The music occasionally takes on a tinny, overly patronizing feel, and there’s the rare moment of spectacle (a set transformation here, a bit of lighting trickery there) that interrupts an otherwise lovely interaction or conversation.
It’s a show well worth seeing, for you, the kids in your life, and the kid you once were and every now and again would like to be. There’s real magic onstage at Bristol Riverside Theater.
The Little Prince, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, February 13. Classic story for all ages in association with Monkey Boys who bring life-sized puppets, actors, and original music to the stage. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.