NEW YORK - Bristol Riverside Theatre's stage adaptation of the beloved fantasy The Little Prince is a study in how a production grows. In January, when it was part of Bristol's season, the show had a monotone quality that kept it aloof. Now, in New York, it's been restaged and some of it rethought.
The adaptation now has muscle under the vision of Bristol's founding artistic director, Susan D. Atkinson, who has taken over for this production and moves it along with the rhythm it needs, which is not a simple one - sometimes spunky, sometimes pensive.
Bristol Riverside's foray into its first-ever tour, which includes Cleveland and the current Off-Broadway stop at the New Victory Theater on 42d Street, is a brave one: In a theater restored to present family shows, The Little Prince seems like a natural but is not.
Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella, published 68 years ago, has many kid-book trappings - a desert adventure, an airplane, a fox, a snake, a talking flower, and a little guy with apparent wisdom - it's hardly kids' stuff. The story is full of metaphors, its awkward characters represent something about the human condition. It's more like a kids' story for adults than one that will resonate with children.
A girl of about 10, sitting behind me Sunday, pronounced the story hard to understand. "But, you know," her mother responded, "it's a very, very, very famous book." To which I would have said, Well, mom, if it's a famous kids' story enough for three verys, why have none of us kids heard of it?
The little girl, less of a smart-mouth, responded with only an "Oh." But the point remains, and I believe that one reason The Little Prince is not standard today is its mixed and not-so-pleasant signals. It still, for some reason, charms adults, and the good news is that Bristol has given it enough pizzazz to grab kids, too, in a 70-minute production.
The best features of Bristol's Little Prince are its puppetry and its impressive multimedia staging, a standout at Bristol and even more striking Off-Broadway for its tweaking since it was workshopped at the up-and-coming Cape May Stage last holiday season, before being accessorized with special effects at Bristol.
The sole all-human role, of a crashed and stranded aviator who befriends the Little Prince in a desert in Africa, is played by Leonard C. Haas, better known on Philadelphia playbills as Lenny. Haas, too, has evolved. Reflective but caught in a slow show that made him seem overly pensive at Bristol, in New York he's in full command. His character has been transfused.
The other roles are played by puppeteers shadowing the life-size puppets, now including master puppeteer Robert Smythe, founder of Center City's defunct Mum Puppettheatre. Michael Schupbach, who designed the puppets, operates others, along with Carol Anne Raffa. Eileen Cella is a spunky, well-voiced Little Prince.
The show, on a large circle of sand in the light of a huge moon, is superbly lit by Ryan O'Gara, with video and puppet construction by Monkey Boys Productions, a Bristol company specializing in puppetry. Were I still a kid, the effects and the puppets would be drawing me in, for sure. The story would be secondary.
The Little Prince
Through Oct. 16 at New Victory Theatre, 42d Street between Seventh and Eigth Avenues, New York. Tickets: $14-$38. Information: 646-223-3010 or www.newvictory.org