By HOLLY BERETTO
Like millions of other girls in the 1970s and ‘80s, I grew up watching Melissa Gilbert grow up on TV, playing the irrepressible Laura Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie.” I read the “Little House Books” (“On the Banks of Plum Creek” and “Little House in the Big Woods” are still my favorites).
So, I read with apprehension – nay, dread – that the Guthrie, that venerated theater in Minneapolis, was producing something called “Little House on the Prairie – the Musical.” And I read with dismay as critics from Variety to the New York Times proclaimed it lackluster, if charming. Thus, it was with curiosity and hope that I went to the Hobby Center to watch TUTS, Houston’s venerated producer of musical theater, bring the show to the Bayou City (at the Hobby Center, through May 9). Could it be that you can go home again?
It turns out… yes and no.
“Little House – the Musical” borrows its material from both the series of books and the television series, much the same as the new stage version of “Mary Poppins” borrows its material from the P.L. Travers classics and the wildly popular Disney movie that made Julie Andrews a star. It tells the story of Laura Ingalls and her family’s pioneering adventures in the area around De Smet in what is now South Dakota, in the 1880s. When we first meet Laura, she’s about thirteen; the musical takes us on a journey over a few years, up till her marriage to Almanzo Wilder.
The lush musical score by Rachel Portman transports the audience through the wild prairies of Laura Ingalls’ youth. It soars and moans and sighs, evoking the hope, tragedy, poverty and faith that met the Ingalls family across their lives as pioneers. It’s one of the true showstoppers of this production. Unfortunately, the book and lyrics don’t quite hold up against the majesty of the music.
Some of lyricist Donna Di Novelli’s numbers, including the opening trio of “Thunder/Up Ahead/The Prairie Moves” are stunning pieces, structured with exposition and propel the production forward. Others, like “Good” (and its reprise) and “Faster” provide rich soliloquy and beautiful character exploration. But nearly all the others borrow situations from five of the “Little House” books and are little more than vignettes. Ditto Rachel Sheinkin’s book, which is clearly written to tell a through story, but somehow comes off slightly disjointed.
As Laura, Kara Lindsay simply shines. Anyone who remembers Melissa Gilbert’s Laura on the TV series will delight in the way Lindsay takes a well-known role and makes it her own. She brings boundless energy, a voice to watch and a well-developed sense of narrative and timing to the feisty main character. She is utterly believable every minute she’s on stage. A true standout performance belongs to Alessa Neeck as Mary, Laura’s older sister. The role isn’t much; it’s mostly designed to showcase Mary’s serene goodness to Laura’s wild exuberance. But Neeck’s singing voice is like spun gold, and she folds herself into the role.
The star power billing of “Little Hosue” goes to Melissa Gilbert as Ma Ingalls. Much has been made of the original Half Pint all grown up and back on the Prairie. But I can’t help feel that Gilbert’s acting talent goes greatly unused. She brings an America’s sweetheart and home-town girl feel to her performance, but Ma doesn’t have much to do. By the time she does, in her solo Act II number, “Wild Child,” it almost feels as if the creators looked around and said, “Dude, wait. We need a song for Ma now.” Regardless of those challenges, Gilbert delivers and her emotion and embodiment of her character ring true.
Steve Blanchard gives a great performance as Pa Ingalls, and Kevin Massey packs a theatrical punch as Laura’s beau, Almanzo. Kate Loprest, as Laura’s nemesis, Nellie Oleson, probably has the toughest role of the show. Nellie’s written as comic relief, likely more from fans’ beloved remembrance of Alison Arngrim’s tour-de-force portrayal of the little prairie brat on the TV series. But here on stage, the role tries too hard and becomes an incongruous over-the-top presence in what is a more simple and down-to-earth production. Nonetheless, Loprest is brilliant with her Lucille-Ball-esque physical comedy and her vocal power makes her a performer to keep an eye on.
Adrienne Lobels’ scenic design consists mostly of painted screens and minimal sets, which lend themselves nicely to showing the vast emptiness of the wild prairie. Mark McCullough’s lighting is just absolutely beautiful.
“Little House” might be uneven, but it’s a true crowd pleaser. Who couldn’t love a production about a family that chases after its dreams, facing every joy and tragedy with faith? At its core, that’s what this is about, and the audience clues in on it. The musical isn’t overly sentimental, which speaks volumes for it, given how its TV predecessor has been oft-maligned for being big on schmaltz. Here on stage, there’s a simple and unwavering sincerity that surely hits home.