Friday, August 15, 2008

Little House on the Prairie, the Musical: A Review


This review contains some information that those who plan to watch the performance may not wish to know in advance.

The Little House on the Prairie musical opens tonight at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after previewing July 26 through August 14. Although critical reviews from theatre experts abound, I have yet to see a full review from the perspective of the "Little House" fan.
The theatre is small and cozy; the Homestead Act of 1862 is displayed on a screen before the performance begins.

The storyline focuses on the Ingalls' quest for "free land" and the struggles they and fellow homesteaders endured trying to prove up on their bet with Uncle Sam. The producers did an excellent job capturing the pioneer spirit -- their devotion to the land and to overcoming hard times. However, I feel they fall short when it comes to making an emotional connection with the audience.

The early scenes were very cute and they did an excellent job incorporating humor throughout the play; but the play failed to make me connect with the characters on a deeper level. It often made me laugh, but it failed to make me cry. The characters are caricatures rather than real people. Nonetheless, it was a very enjoyable experience and I would love to see it again.

The “Little House” purist will be both pleased and displeased with the script. Pleased because a great number of lines in the dialogue come straight out of the “Little House” books, many lines word for word the way Laura wrote them. Displeased because, as in any dramatic production, liberties were taken and changes were made.

Virtually every scene in the musical comes from the books; however, they are not always chronological. There is some logic behind the changes that were made, however. For example, Mary does not go blind until the Long Winter, but it is obvious that this change was made because her character needed to be developed (as the good little girl who loves to learn and wants to be a teacher) so that the impact that her blindness had on her could be better understood by the audience. Mary contracts scarlet fever, and this scene was developed by pulling in bits from the “fever ‘n’ ague” chapter of Little House on the Prairie. Again, there is some logic to this – a doctor had to be called for Mary anyway, Laura doesn’t ever name a doctor in De Smet or Walnut Grove; so rather than invent a fictional doctor, the writer simply pulled in Dr. Tann from a previous book.

The story begins with the Ingalls’ decision to leave Walnut Grove. We see the building of the railroad, finding and filing on the homestead claim, the town springing up around them. Laura is portrayed as a little girl during these early scenes of the musical, and quickly becomes characterized as – for lack of a better word – wild. Kara Lindsay is energetic and animated, to the point that I didn’t really find young Laura to be very likable. However, as the plot proceeds, Laura grows up and with some effort, is able to tame her wild side. The older Laura is a much more likable character and I was quite pleased that she calmed down.

Jenn Gambatese plays an outstanding Mary. As the older sister, her behavior sharply contrasts with Laura’s and Carrie’s in the early scenes; while they are high-strung and childish and complain about having to go to school, Mary is more mature, and recognizes the opportunities that living near a town and going to school afford her.

Carrie is played by Maeve Moynihan, and her role seems to be the cute little sister that provides occasional comic relief. Grace is not included in the production at all.

Melissa Gilbert is clearly the draw of the play, the reason that ticket sales soared and the show’s run was extended. Two big questions seem to be on everyone’s mind: can she successfully make the shift from being tv Laura to becoming Ma on stage, and can she sing? The answer to both questions is not a simple yes or no.

Acting for television and movies is very different from live stage performances. This style difference between Melissa Gilbert and the other actors is noticeable, yet not necessarily in a negative way. Gilbert is not as lively and animated as the other characters, but because she plays Ma, this actually works out to be a good thing. It would really have bothered me to see Ma Ingalls jumping around the stage as Pa and the girls do, because that would simply be so out of Ma’s character. So I felt it was a very positive thing that Melissa Gilbert’s style was a little different, because it helped to establish Ma’s character more accurately.

As far as her singing, her voice lacks the depth and strength of the other performers, but she shows natural talent and is actually quite good, especially considering her lack of experience in this area. As she becomes more confident and receives more training, I think there will be steady improvement throughout the show's run, making a good voice even better. It’s actually a great risk for her to branch out and do this, and I applaud her for having the courage to do so.

One concern I had beforehand was that I would find it difficult to dissociate Gilbert from the role of Laura, and that this would interfere with my ability to enjoy the performance. I did not find that to be the case; I had no trouble at all viewing Gilbert as Ma, she fell quite naturally into the role and delivered a splendid performance overall.

The relationship between Ma and Pa was very well done; I appreciated the effort made to balance Pa’s itching foot with his love for his family. Steve Blanchard made a wonderful Pa, complete with beard. I only wish that more emphasis had been placed on Pa's fiddle; with this being a musical, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase the importance the fiddle had in helping the family get through their many trials, and it barely received a brief mention.

While my overall impression of the musical was positive, there were three major negatives.

The first followed the scene where the girls are sent home from school for rocking the seat. Pa yells at them for making trouble in school, and his tone was very cruel. It really took me aback and I felt it was very out of character for Pa.

The second occurred while Almanzo was driving Laura back and forth from the Brewster School. After Laura informs Almanzo that she no longer intends to go with him after she’s home for good so he can save himself these long drives if he wishes, Almanzo doesn’t come back! Laura stays at the school till it’s over, then Mr. Brewster takes her home. Meanwhile, Almanzo is taking Nellie Oleson for buggy rides. This twist was designed to create a bit of tension, to make Laura realize now that she no longer has him that she misses Almanzo, but it’s a change I definitely didn’t like.

The third was after Laura finished her teaching stint at the Brewster School. It was made clear that she was miserable there, but held out only to help Mary go to college, just as in the books. However, when she returns from teaching, Ma and Pa inform her that Mary has earned a scholarship and her money isn’t needed, and now she can buy herself a new dress. I hated the way this was done because it made Laura’s sacrifice worthless.

By the way, for those die-hard Wilder fans wondering how Almanzo’s name is pronounced in the show – it’s Al-MON-zo. (The real Almanzo Wilder pronounced his name Al-MAN-zo.)

The audience appeared to enjoy the production. Smiles were on many faces as they watched the performance; it gave me great pleasure to hear the audience roar with laughter at many lines that were actually straight from the books. Laura has such a clever wit, and it was splendid to see it appreciated. I did hear some rumblings afterward about, “Well that’s not how it was in the books”, but overall it seemed to win the approval of the audience.

Rumor has it that the show is slated for a national tour next year, and may end up on Broadway in the future, as well. I definitely feel a national tour is warranted, and will be very successful. I also think that if in the future the script is made available for purchase, many regional or high school/college theatre groups would be interested in performing this. Whether or not it would be a hit on Broadway, I'm not so sure; I'm not sure it really fits the Broadway crowd.

In closing, I would just like to repeat that my overall experience was very positive, and I was thrilled to see "Little House on the Prairie" live on stage. I would love to hear others' thoughts about the musical, and invite you to post your comments below if you have had the opportunity to see it.


Cathy Santarsiero, "The Christmas Corgi" said...

Thanks for taking the time to write the review. I hope it will come to Broadway in the near future! Warmly, Cathy ^..^

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your review and I am just so excited to be able to go see the musical. The end of September can't come soon enough!! I don't know why this is so important to me, but I'm glad Pa has a beard...

Heidi said...

This is a great review. Did you send a link to someone who is producing the musical? I think it might be of interest to them. It is well thought out and well written. I thought your comments about some of the changes being negative were things that would have really bothered me as well. If the show ever comes out this way, I'll have to make a point to go and see it!

Esther said...

I just posted my review. I gave the musical 3 out of 4 stars on my scale. There was a lot I liked about it - including Kara Lindsay's performance and the duet in "I'll be your eyes." But there were some scenes and dialog that I thought were just a bit too 21st-century sounding. Still, it's a good show, very enjoyable.

Sharon said...

I just saw the play at the Paper Mill Theater in Millburn, NJ. The show was a big hit - sold out on a Thursday night. It was definitely geared to the younger audience, and although it did not always provide the depth of characters I know from the book, it was really perfect for my 11 year old daughter and hopefully it will fuel her interest in Laura's life. I was really impressed at how a brand new musical was created for this material. I wouldn't say any song stuck out,but there was a wonderful cohesiveness to the music and how the songs all related to each other. All around a great show and yes, Melissa Gilbert can definitely sing and Kara Lindsay was terrific!

Kate said...

Hi - thanks so much for this review. I would really love to catch the production and I know that, if those negative things you mentioned and the timing of Mary's blindness had caught me by surprise, they would have spoiled the show for me somewhat. Now I am prepared for the changes, I can sit back and happily appreciate the show for what it is without any unpleasant surprises! Many thanks!