The PlayMakers Repertory Company has, as expected, returned its production of The Little Prince to the stage of Carolina’s Paul Green Theatre as its December offering — and this year’s show is stronger and more appealing than 2007’s initial version of Rick Cummins and John Scoullar’s stage adaptation of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s much-loved allegorical novella. Directed again by Tom Quaintance, this production is a little brisker in places, and a little gentler in others; and it goes more directly to the heart’s wisdom learned and shared by the Little Prince.

But the most strengthening changes derive from the casting decisions. This year, the Prince is played by a male; and that makes all the difference in the world. There are many, many places where cross-gender casting works well, but the title role of The Little Prince is not one of them (although it might work if the Aviator were also a woman). I spent last year’s performance struggling so hard to suspend disbelief regarding the identity of the Prince — who, played by a woman, seemed to be an impostor — that apparently I missed some of the script’s finer moments. Derrick Ledbetter, a member of the Professional Actor Training Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (and noted among the ensemble players in PRC’s Pericles this fall), makes a good and believable Prince. He’s a hair stiff in his lines in a few places, but overall is sweet and moving as the little seeker from “planet” B612. The precise moment when the responsibility of love dawns on the young prince — when experience overbalances innocence — is very clear. It is the same moment that he understands he must shed his body to fulfill his obligation to The Rose, and Ledbetter informs it with a poignancy suitable to the realization of mortality, without in any way overplaying.

Scott Ripley, who joined the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Dramatic Art and PRC this year, plays the Aviator; and he brings rather different qualities to the role from those of his predecessor, the warm, subtle, and older Kenneth P. Strong. I admire Strong’s work, and enjoyed his interpretation of the Aviator; but Ripley’s relative youth, and his character’s bitter impatience and patent uncertainty, make for a greater tension in the part, and make the changes wrought in him by his acquaintance with the Prince clearer and more meaningful. Ripley, a Navy flyer who resigned his commission to study acting, seems to speak from personal experience when, as the Aviator, he tells of giving up drawing and imagination to become a pilot. He is also highly credible crawling around his downed plane with a wrench. Best of all, his performance includes not a speck of sentimentality.

Marianne Miller makes a lovely Rose, spoiled, manipulative, and brave. Joy Jones returns as the Snake, and if anything she is more wonderful than last year. The same is true of Jason Powers, who again plays the pivotal role of the Fox. Both also appear as characters the Prince meets on his journey through the planets. Others of these strange grown-ups are wonderfully played as well, especially the Tippler (Flor de Liz Perez) and the Businessman (Jimmy Kieffer).

The entire “taming” scene with the Fox and the Little Prince is among the most satisfying of the evening, and it also shows off McKay Coble’s clever scenic and costume design — without which the play, with its minimal action, would flounder. Another key element is the music — composed by actor Matthew Murphy (the Geographer and the Turkish Astronomer) — that punctuates the scenes. The emphasis on music on stage, and the utilization of the musical talents of the company is a happy aspect of the Joseph Haj era now in full swing at PRC. This reworking of The Little Prince reinforces the sense that for Haj and today’s PRC, theater is not static or theory-bound, but alive at heart and dynamic with imagination’s changes. When I left the theater, the 500 million stars were laughing like little bells up above, and I’m sure I saw B612 winking.

The Little Prince continues at Playmakers Rep through Dec. 14th. See our calendar for details.