Yes, the second one without the puppets is better balanced. And you are right, the director plays with the balance a little bit.
GOOD things in this one (be they accidental or not):
- The arrangement of the kids is much more balanced.
- I can see all of their faces
- There is uniformity to their pose, yet they are not rigid
Criticisms (not to be picky, but to help...):
- Have the director sit (either where you suggested, or even where she is, if she were sitting she wouldn't be an anomoly in the picture)
- The girl in the front row second from the left... Had she pointed her knees the other way, all of the "lines" created by the legs in the front row would point to center, and you gain even more uniformity.
- I would have switched the girl with the long blonde hair with the girl dead center in the second row. Reason, her jeans are a much lighter color than the others in the row and thus she stands out. Switching these two girls gives color balance to the first row.
Overall, these are great pictures, again, I loved the singles. Having taken many pictures of choirs, orchestras, and sports teams (primarily soccer) I have grown a "second sense" on what makes a good group shot.
PS - I also LOVE the "Krispy Kreme" style t.