Saturday, October 18, 2008

Little House on the Prairie

After hearing what all the reviews said, I went in skeptical. In fact, when I told people I was going, I said, “Well, I guess it’s not that great, but I still had to see it.”

First of all, it’s Melissa Gilbert. Everyone of my generation came home from school to watch Little House on the Prairie on a daily basis. Get men and women of my generation talking about Little House on the Prairie, and they’ll start talking about the episode with the raccoon, the one where Laura thinks Mr. Oleson has murdered Mrs. Oleson, the one where Albert dies. It brings back a flood of fond memories and stories, and in every one is Melissa Gilbert.

Not only that, but the show was playing in Minnesota, the home of Plum Creek, the location for all those snow-less episodes of the television series.

But just because there is a fondness for the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t mean the musical Little House on the Prairie gets an automatic pass. It certainly didn’t with the critics. First of all, it has the rare almost all-woman creative team with very little Broadway experience. It’s directed by Francesca Zambello, who was lambasted for The Little Mermaid. Rachel Portman, who won the Oscar for her underscore to Emma, is an untried musical theatre composer. Lyrics are by Donna di Novelli, book by Rachel Sheinkin, and choreography by Michelle Lynch. It was also developed at the Guthrie Theatre, a nationally recognized and highly respected theatre but one that is not known for developing new musical works.

I’ll just cut to the chase. I loved it. I loved it. I walked out of the Guthrie more satisfied with Little House on the Prairie than after most of the shows I saw my last time in New York.

The story has been criticized for attempting to tell too much of the Ingalls story. In this version, which appears to be an amalgam of the books, the Ingalls family starts out in Wisconsin, Pa immediately dreaming of moving west. The family ends up in South Dakota, struggling through tough times on the prairie, fighting to survive the harsh winter.

During that time, bookish Mary contracts Scarlet fever, which causes her to lose her sight. Bereft of her ability to learn, her greatest passion taken from her, spunky little sister Laura becomes her eyes and, eventually, more when Laura takes a teaching position far away in a cold, God-forsaken community to fund Mary’s tuition at a special school for the blind.

During this time, gutsy Almanzo Wilder begins to court Laura, who will have nothing to do with him. Rejected, he begins to be seen around with Nellie Oleson. Though jealous, Laura can’t bring herself to admit that she is, indeed, in love with Almanzo. Now a teacher earning a salary, she has tried too hard to be like Mary to let herself go for a man such as Almanzo. Only when Ma encourages her to let the wild child inside her free does Laura allow herself to have Almanzo.

At first blush, the plot of Little House on the Prairie appears fragmented and unfocused; however, in production, the show is book-ended by “Up Ahead,” a song in celebration of the pioneer spirit, making this not just Laura Ingalls Wilder but Laura Ingalls Wilder as Willa Cather—a story in celebration of the American spirit, hard work, and freedom. Here, Laura is more than a spunky girl on the prairie, but she is the spirit of every American man and woman, able to face down times of death and sadness and, using his or her own inner strength, faith, and determination, to carve out a place of happiness and to thrive.

As has been said by many, Melissa Gilbert is not a strong singer. Her solo called “Wild Child” is an impassioned plea to Laura, to not loose sight of her American spirit, her inner wildness, the thing that sets her (and our country) apart. It is appropriately written to her limited vocal abilities, which is fitting. And what the heck, it’s Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie. All is good. Fortunately, Gilbert is more than comfortable on stage and gives a strong stage-worthy performance.

Billing aside, perhaps the brightest star in the show is no stranger to many, Jenn Gambatese as soft-spoken Mary. She’s perfect in the role and makes Mary a nuanced and multi-faceted character. In one of the best moments in the show, she handles her blindness with bravery and strength before her parents, then loses it completely with Laura, the tears literally escaping her when she can hold them no longer.

The other shining star is Kevin Massey as Almanzo, whose voice is golden and his spirit alive on stage.

The rest of the cast is fine. Kara Lindsay is a cute Laura, taking her from pre-adolescence (always a tough task) to young adulthood. Her voice has a certain Kristin Chenoweth quality to it, which is oddly fitting to the youthfulness of the part. Best of all, her spunkiness seems natural.

Like Ma, Pa’s character is appropriately sparsely developed, much like in the books. Steve Blanchard highlights both Pa’s strengths and weaknesses, bringing him a few giant steps closer to the real Pa than Michael Landon’s version on the television show.

Sara Jean Ford is a cute and naughty Nellie Oleson, milking her moments for some big laughs, and Maeve Maynihan is a cute, endearing Carrie Ingalls. Norah Long, in the small part as school teacher Eliza Wilder, makes a strong impression as well.

Musically, Rachel Portman gives Little House on the Prairie a strong prairie sound interspersed with Indian drum beats and traditional musical theatre moments. The score is thrilling, ripe with beauty, passion, and personality. In general, it’s a myth that you can leave a theatre humming songs. I’ve seen many of the greatest musicals ever written and have rarely left the theatre humming specific tunes. Here, though, I found myself singing several songs both during intermission and after the show.

Lyrically, Donna di Novelli’s lyrics could probably use some refinement as there are some off-rhymes throughout. That is not say, however, that her lyrics are not often clever and perfectly suited to the characters.

Among their best songs include the opening number “Up Ahead,” in which the settlers travel west, which was accomplished on stage through a beautiful bit of staging to replicate a wagon train. Laura and Mary get a really beautiful song called “I’ll Be Your Eyes” in which Laura promises Mary to be there for her. “Go Like the Wind” is a rousing song as Almanzo races.

That is not to say that there aren’t a couple of duds in the score. There’s a song in Act I, perhaps “Uncle Sam, Where are You?”, in which the lyrics never seem to align to the music, and Pa’s big solo, “The Prairie Moves,” is filled with big open vowels and longs to be as vast as the prairie, but even Steve Blanchard’s booming baritone can't make the song soar. It just doesn’t work.

Francesca Zambello’s staging is clever and appropriate for the regional stage. Michelle Lynch’s choreography is not particularly complex, but its strong infusion of country dance and movement is perfect for the needs of the show.

Perhaps the biggest complaint is in the orchestra. Portman’s music longs to be big, worthy of a far-stretching prairie, and there simply aren’t enough instruments to give the music the oomph it requires.

My first thought upon leaving the theatre, honestly, was how badly this show needs to be recorded. This is a rousing, heart-warming, get your blood pumping score filled with charming characters and great beauty. If nonsense like Happy Days can get recorded, let’s all earnestly pray that this score makes it to record, particularly with Kara Lindsay, Jenn Gambatese, and Kevin Massey.

The show closes tomorrow at the Guthrie, though my understanding is that it will tour. While the show as written is definitely worthy of the Broadway stage, I don’t know if it is really the type of the show that could make it there. It sold out quickly in Minnesota and was a definite audience-pleaser, but its Midwestern heart might just not be big enough for New York audiences. Hopefully the tour will reach enough cities to spread the word, and Little House on the Prairie will have a healthy life regionally. Of course, how much word spreads will also be dependant on the show’s ability to court a recording of the score.

The Broadway Mouth
October 18, 2008

Note: I will write soon about some suggested changes that be made to the staging and tweaks to the writing of Little House on the Prairie.

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