Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Little House on the Prairie, The Musical
Also see Bob's review of Hamlet
Thereafter, the first act is largely a bleak account of hardship and tragedy as the Ingalls family faces prairie fire, blizzard, unbearable winter cold, food shortage (it seems that the government couldn't run the railroad even back then), exploitation at the hands of their general store proprietor, crop failure, and sickness. Ultimately, a "fever" causes the permanent blindness of the Ingalls eldest daughter, Mary. Yes, there is a likely suitor for Laura in the form of youthful homesteader Almanzo Wilder; a buggy race through town; and a truncated townsfolk dance number, but these provide scant pleasure amid the prevailing doom and gloom. The book by Rachel Sheinkin lurches from hardship to hardship of the Ingalls family failing to capture the three dimensional, human details which might engage our emotions and the warmth of family relationships which ameliorate life's difficulties.
As the first act ends, the 14 year old, heretofore wild and free spirited, Laura leaves her family behind to take a job as school teacher in a new settlement twelve miles south. She does so in order to earn the money to enable her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. As the curtain falls, Laura sings a reprise of "I'll Be Your Eyes."
The second act begins with Laura coming to live with Mr. Brewster (who hired her to teach) and his forbidding wife. Mrs. Brewster, who is one miserable piece of goods, treats Laura abominably. You may well wonder why this additional, seemingly superfluous misery is added to Laura's woes in this musical. However, when Mrs. Brewster reveals to Laura that she has been victimized by being forced against her will by her dictatorial husband to lead a hard pioneer life, we are provided with the only reason for Laura's failure to succumb to Almanzo fifty minutes before the final curtain. Still, the second act is considerably lighter, livelier and more entertaining than the first. Much of it is taken up with Almanzo's courtship of Laura, and the unrequited efforts of her rival, Nellie, to steal his heart. It may be silly and trivial, but it does provide enjoyable family entertainment.
The music by Rachel Portman is generic and forgettable. The country-like dance melodies are lively, but lack verve and joie de vivre. There are a few effective enough rising chord songs of inspiration. The lyrics by Donna di Novelli tend to the simplistic and prosaic. The latter is particularly evident in "Wild Child," Melissa Gilbert's only solo opportunity and the "11 o'clock number."
Michele Lynch's choreography is energetic. Adrianne Lobel's scenic elements, while clearly designed to travel, more than fill the bill. For the most part, wooden fences, tables, chairs and panels are cleverly set about the stage in varying configurations. In one instance, tables and fences most effectively transform into a wagon train. Rear curtains represent several, effective skyscapes.
The most entertaining scenes and Francesca Zambello's most felicitous staging are reserved for Laura and Almanzo's rides through the ice and snow on his sled (or buggy) while singing the score's brightest tune, "Flying." The vehicle is actually a box which sits atop a small base. However, with the driver holding and pulling on two straps which are attached to winches located on the floor downstage, Zambello creates beautiful and exhilarating stage pictures of the couple gliding smoothly and quickly through the landscape. The straps and winches are also effectively employed for the first act buggy race.
Little House on the Prairie has its genesis in the now classic, popular series of "Little House" children's books by Laura Ingalls Wilder which depicted her real-life pioneer childhood in South Dakota. Mrs. Wilder was 65 years old when the first of these books was published in 1932. The books served as the inspiration for the immensely popular television series "Little House on the Prairie," which aired beginning in 1974.
Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura over the course of eight years (1974-1982) in about 180 episodes of the vastly popular television series, returns to the Prairie as Ma (Caroline Ingalls). While her presence alone lends credibility to the project, Gilbert also brings warmth, a homey dignity, and clear and pleasing vocalizing. Steve Blanchard is appropriately stalwart as Pa (Charles Ingalls).
Kevin Massey winningly portrays Almanzo Wilder, the young pioneer who woos and wins Laura with skill, charm and enthusiasm. Massey throws off sparks with his smooth, strong and accurate baritone, precise dance movement and open, naturalistic acting. His Almanzo convinces us that Massey has the stuff to be a western pioneer settler as well as a mainstay on the musical stage.
The production suffers from director Francesca Zambello's decision to cast adults in the principal roles of the two older Ingalls daughters (14-year-old Laura and 16-year-old Mary) and their rival female students. While nary a one comes close to being convincing as a child, some do fare better than others. Initially, Kara Lindsay's (Laura) attempt to portray a hoydenish little girl is grating. However, as her Laura emotionally matures, Lindsay proves a bright and winning, vocally mellifluous charmer. The equally pleasant Alessa Neeck performs well throughout as older sister Mary. The miscasting of Kate Loprest in the role of Laura's snooty rival Nellie is particularly egregious. Bedecked in a wig consisting of a dozen (?) curls all around her head, and directed to play obnoxiously cutesy poo, Loprest's Nellie resembles Carol Burnett satirically playing a child in an old television comedy skit. I don't know if there is any significance to the fact that Loprest is listed among the homesteaders rather than the school children. However, it seems clear to me that Loprest is not the one to be blamed for this misfire. Ten-year-old Carly Rose Sonenclar as the youngest Ingalls child, Carrie, is funny and delightful. In fact, all of the children who play children make solid contributions. The casting of age appropriate actors in the principal children's roles would allow audiences more emotional involvement with the Ingalls family. It would also make sitting through the first act less of a chore for younger audiences.
I could not help but wonder how many parents today would agree with Ma Ingalls' admonition to Laura concerning her relationship with her school teacher: "She may have been unfair, but she is the teacher; you must show respect." For better or worse, I think that many "eternal verities" of previous generations are no longer accepted today.
After Little House on the Prairie, The Musical concludes its Paper Mill presentation, its eighteen producers have scheduled a road tour through next year. Twenty-four cities have already been announced, beginning with St. Paul, Minnesota, on October 13 through to Fort Worth, Teas in June of next year. Visit littlehousethemusical.com for more information.
After the intermission, extended passages of this production provide the fun and uplift which are coveted by family audiences. However, unless the creative team is able to weave such pleasures throughout the entire fabric of their adaptation in the months ahead, Little House on the Prairie will have to rely on its pedigree to entice family audiences on its journey through the hinterlands.
Little House on the Prairie, The Musical continues performances through October 10, 2009 (Evenings: Wednesday (except October 7) - Sunday 7:00 p.m.; Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays 1:30 p.m. at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343 . Online: www.papermill.org.
Little House on the Prairie, The Musical book by Rachel Sheinkin, music by Rachel Portman, lyrics by Donna di Novelli; based on the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder; initiated for the stage by Adrianne Lobel and Francesca Zambello; choreographed by Michele Lynch; directed by Francesca Zambello
The Ingalls Family
School Children of De Smet
School Children of Brewster
Student at School For the Blind
...Garen McRoberts, Gayle Samuels,