Review: ‘The Little Prince’ Travels the Universe but Never Lifts Off

PHILADELPHIA — Princes have a way of showing up in dances — even the innocent young interstellar traveler from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” Now, BalletX has added its own rendition of that beloved novella, and it’s all about letting the inner child out.

But it’s hard to know exactly for whom this ballet, performed Wednesday at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia where the company is based, is intended. While the book — and its delicate drawings, also by Saint-Exupéry — have long captivated readers of all ages, this ballet, by the Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, never rises to the kind of sophisticated whimsy that might make an adult fall in love with a kid’s show.

Even in its most etched afterimages — the character of the Snake (Stanley Glover), in particular, with his bowler hat and walking stick — the choreography, repetitive and frequently choppy, doesn’t elevate the production beyond a story staged as a dance rather than a dance that tells a story.

It’s helpful to set the scene, which includes a landscape of rugged mountains made from stacked white boxes by the set designer Matt Saunders. In the ballet, the Pilot (Zachary Kapeluck) has crashed his plane in the desert — yellow pieces of it litter the floor — where he meets the Little Prince (Roderick Phifer), who asks the Pilot to draw a sheep. But that fails repeatedly until the Pilot produces a box; the sheep, it turns out, is inside it. This delights the Prince to no end. They bond.

The Pilot’s early attempts at the drawing are enacted by a chorus of dancers in white who reconfigure their bodies into sculptural shapes each time the Prince shakes his head in disapproval. Later, they hold sticks topped with purple birds as they leap across the floor; there are also sticks with stars, a sun, a moon.

The environment of boxes — it’s as if the fashion designer Martin Margiela had designed a UPS store — suddenly makes sense both as a reference to the story, and for the way it creates a clean white palette against which the characters, with their colorful, cartoonish costumes and props, attempt to bring the novella’s pages to life.

The composer Peter Salem plays a variety of instruments, including a synthesizer, a banjo and a harmonica, amid the boxes, which at times obscure him. There are some unfortunate sheep baas, but for the most part Mr. Salem’s contribution is understated and playful.

In her choreography, Ms. Lopez Ochoa breaks down movement according to character. The vain and vapid Rose (Francesca Forcella) is the Prince’s love; her body sighs as she wiggles her fingers — they are gloved with red nails — to signify thorns. But none are as deeply etched, for better or worse, as the Snake; whenever he slinks across the stage, Mr. Glover — in a role too emulative of Bob Fosse — is all taut legs and jutting hips.

His sinuous contortions are also a sign: In Ms. Lopez Ochoa’s take on this story, the Snake is a prominent character who represents death; the Pilot, suffering from dehydration as we see from his depleted water supply, is on the verge of succumbing to his own.

In the first act, the Pilot and the Prince escape the Snake by traveling to planets occupied by clueless adults, including the King (Blake Krapels), who gives orders despite the fact that he has no subjects, and the Lamp Lighter (Andrea Yorita), who squanders her days lighting and extinguishing a streetlight. Wearing a lampshade on her head and a lampshade tutu — the costumes are by Danielle Truss — she conveys her busy state of mind with prickly point-work that sends her spinning across the stage.

In the second half, the tale centers more on death and loneliness as the Prince travels to earth and sobs (yes, out loud) upon discovering a rosebush. His Rose, he learns, is not so rare.

Too many of the dancing sequences rely on semistatic partnering in which lifts reveal fleeting moments of angst. There are also jokey interventions, like when one dancer from the rosebush borrows the Snake’s bowler hat for a suggestive pas de deux — it’s forced — or when the Snake pokes his walking stick into Mr. Salem.

In the end, the Pilot fixes his plane and the Prince dies after dancers — holding sticks with stars — indicate that his friend only has to look into the night sky to remember him. In its sweetest moments, Ms. Lopez Ochoa’s “The Little Prince” feels like a group of kids, with their homemade visuals, putting on a show. But more often, the missing ingredient in this production is wonderment: seeing the world through a child’s eyes.

The Little Prince

Through July 21 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia; 215-546-7824,

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