Little House on the Prairie--The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
September 26, 2009
Actress Melissa Gilbert (Laura in the NBC television series) comes full circle at Paper Mill Playhouse in a production of Little House On the Prairie—The Musical. Gilbert's joy in the material and enthusiasm for the well-loved story shine through her work on stage in the role of Caroline "Ma" Ingalls. She is paired up with the rugged Steve Blanchard as Charles "Pa" Ingalls. But while Ma's steady common sense and Pa's well-intentioned sense of adventure anchor the production, it is Kara Lindsay's appealing Laura who takes the reins (literally) and drives this solid ensemble. Lindsay's energetic Laura draws us in from the beginning and her powerful voice commands everyone's attention.
Unlike the familiar television series which is set in the more hospitable and pastoral Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Little House On the Prairie—The Musical follows Laura Ingalls Wilder's later books and takes place at the onset of the family's move West to stake a land claim in the wide open and harsher plains of the Dakota Territory. Laura begins this story at the age of twelve and journeys to adulthood as the homesteaders create the community of DeSmet, South Dakota with nothing but human will, faith, and back-breaking work.
Director Francesca Zambello stages the piece with creativity and imagination. The opening sequences are especially visually dynamic.
The musical score by Rachel Portman, with orchestrations by Larry Hockman, is lush and reminiscent at times of Aaron Copland. The book by Rachel Sheinkin and lyrics by Donna di Novelli strive valiantly in the first act but ultimately the action leaps so quickly from one sweeping epic event to the next dire circumstance that, aside from Laura, little time is afforded for anything but the most superficial character development. The play comes alive more fully in Act Two when the focus moves away from larger-than-life experience and bad weather to concentrate more directly on people and relationships.
There are many standouts in supporting roles. Alessa Neeck and Carly Rose Sonenclar are both gifted singers and charming as Laura's sisters Mary and Carrie. Kevin Massey as Almanzo is a good foil for Lindsay's robust Laura. He is her match in energy and rebellious determination, and Kate Loprest gives us a delightful comic turn as Nellie Oleson, Laura's nemesis and rival for Almanzo's affections.
Lighting by Mark McCullough is dramatic and, when supported by the breathtaking backdrops, truly evocative of the big skies and wide open plains of the upper Midwest. The set by Adrianne Lobel and costumes by Jess Goldstein, while perfectly (sometimes cleverly) functional, lack some authentic detailing that would help to transport the audience more fully into the America of the 1880s. The Little House is too bare to feel like a well-loved pioneer homestead and one is hard-pressed to believe that what the actors are wearing in the winter scenes would keep them alive, let alone warm, at 20 degrees below zero.
An earlier version of the play was presented at the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota last year and according to the press materials only two songs remain from that first production. It is likely the piece will continue to evolve before it goes out on tour after its current run.
All in all Little House On the Prairie—The Musical is an enchanting excursion to a beloved American story presented by a sterling and dedicated ensemble and despite its still being a little rough around the edges I highly recommend it, especially for a family who is looking to spend an exceptional evening of theatre together. Those opportunities are rare so take advantage while you can. The show runs to October 10th at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey and then begins a nationwide tour.