At long last, almost 3/4ths of a whole year after buzz started about this production, I have finally seen it and I would have to say first of all that I want to see it again. I really think I will. Besides the tour that seems to be green lighted (still only Denver is reporting having announced officially), it seems tailor made for regional and community productions. The minimal set, the roles made for easy doubling or tripling to limit cast size, and the lack of anything too complicated in the music and more especially the dancing (which in my experience is the first thing cut from community musicals – apparently many more people are under the delusion they should sing for an audience than dance for one) all argue for this title’s early and often production in those venues. Take that plus the already popular trail blazing done by Voices of the Prairie, the two versions of the Little House Christmas, and the ArtsPower production, plus general name value and I’m sure it will be a smash hit there once it’s released for general production.
There are two kinds of musicals, those where the music grows in naturally (think The Music Man) and those that are highly stylized to make the music fit (think My Fair Lady). The Guthrie’s Production is very stylized and while there are definite shout outs to real life, the books (including direct lines quoted in dialogue) and the TV show (Nellie, EJ), the show almost aggressively tries to be its own original production. To that end, none of the music of the books is used or built on. There isn’t so much as a note of Old Dan Tucker when Mr. Edwards appears. Pa’s fiddle spends most of the play hanging on the wall. They pack so much that is original in that they can hardly get their breath. Understanding that going in is a key to enjoying the show. Don’t try to align it with anything you know. After all, this musical takes place in a mythic version of the West where nobody notices if one family is African-American and treats them as equals without a thought or mention. In other words, don’t look for reality or accuracy here, look for a good time.
An outstanding feature of the show is the way the cast moved in unison to create the illusion of motion. They could create a jog or break as well as the cast of Star Trek:The Next Generation could which is saying a lot. I also liked how they solved a couple of their problems. First, they wanted a minimal set, so the designer came up with taking the four panels that make up the little house and rearranging them to be the house, a school, the main street of De Smet. It was very impressively done and once you realize what they are, it really adds a layer of meaning. (Read more about it in their souvenir booklet and buy copies of the original drawings as notecards in the gift shop.) The cast moved the walls themselves which one reviewer said was amateurish, but also cut down considerably on the time between scenes and there was so much in this show that they needed to gain time any way they could. Second, I liked how they got around having horses. Horses play a big role in the story, especially in the later books in the series that the production focuses on, and they didn’t have room or conditions to have horses on stage. Instead they had a series of hoops mounted to the front of the stage where footlights would be in an older type of stage. Whenever they needed a horse they took out reins and hooked them onto one of these hooks. Shaking the reins and mimicking the motions did create a stylized impression that there WERE horses. This was especially effective during the Fourth of July race and when Laura and Manly went back and forth to Brewsters when it was paired with a flat on wheels to be a sled.
Although a lot of ink has been spilled questioning Melissa Gilbert’s casting in a musical, I thought she did a fine job. She certainly carried her weight and although I don’t think she put in as much character in Ma as I would have liked, you could certainly see why Pa loved her. She was very appealing and I think showed her relationships with Pa and the girls and the wild new land very well. Other references to the TV show include the appearance of Nellie and especially Eliza Jane Wilder. Norah Long’s EJ is so close to Lucy Lee Flippin’s that they really ought to be paying her royalties. They also use the TV show’s version of Al-MON-zo instead of the real life Al-MAN-zo (if the logic of his nicknames doesn’t convince you that it’s Al-MAN-zo, listen to Laura say it on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Speaks CD or audiotape). Why several of the people, especially main production people, go so far out of their way in both the program and souvenir book to say they weren’t influenced by the TV show when so clearly somebody was I don’t know. Anyway plenty of references and things that make you think about the TV production got in there, so keep a sharp eye out TV fans.
They also seemed to have borrowed part of a supporting plot line from the very popular Wicked, hyping up the Nellie-Laura relationship, even giving Nellie a solo about it Without an Enemy which, although one-sided, played into some of the same themes as I’ve Been Changed for Good from Wicked.
While it isn’t fair to judge this show as a documentary, I do think it is fair though to judge it as a musical and there it does still need some polishing which I hope it gets. I remember coming out of seeing the musical movie Annie in the movie theater. I had never seen it before and I came out singing songs. I came out of Anne of Green Gables: the Musical singing songs that I had never heard before. Even though it’s been four years since I saw the Laura’s Memories the one time and I can still do the tune from their best number Farmer Boy. I can remember a few phrases of the lyrics, but none of the melodies from any of the songs in this production. That is not good news for a musical. I think maybe cutting a song or two in favor of some exposition to help the plot make sense to those who don’t live the books and replacing a few more songs (with catchier versions at least) could bring a vast improvement. I’d nominate the drinking song Here’s to the Soot for one to go whose only redeeming factor is Almanzo making pancakes, one of his best scenes. Let’s get him different circumstances to do that in. The Where’s Uncle Sam? musical bridge that emerges in several places is way more 21st century Minnesota politics than 19th century Dakota attitudes and while it ties things together, that could also be replaced with a better bridge that fit closer with the rest of the material.
I would also like to see them work a little on Laura character in the first act. Like Rose and Jack in Titanic, this Laura seems to have been dropped out of our time into the world the rest of the characters were born in. Heck, in her Capri pants and tunic she almost literally looked like she was coming in running on the stage the first time from being dropped off from a carpool from the mall rather than playing on the prairie. (Jess Goldstein, the costume designer, says in the souvenir book that he’s actually proud of this getup.) They have jumped on the tomboy/wild child characterization to such an extreme that she’s kind of obnoxious. The actress we had was a substitute (Addi McDaniel who usually plays Ida took over for Kara Lindsay), but she did fine with the material she was given and really came into her own in the second act where she was given better material. I liked Addi McDaniel in the second act and I really think she looked a lot more the part than Lindsay does judging from the photos. I really wish there had been a substitute in for Jenn Gambatese as Mary, who did fine while Mary could see, but seems to think the way to act blind is to close her eyes, bend forward at the waist, and hunch. (This is one place where they SHOULD have watched the TV show. Melissa Sue Anderson actually went to a real blind school to get trained with acting blind properly which I think she really did a good job at. Read her article about it in a Guidepost issue from the time.)
If they do nothing else there are 3 scenes that scream out for fixing. The first is based on Carrie rocking the desk. They were trying to imply that Carrie was still rocking from being constantly shaken in the wagon, but as that makes no sense I’ll quickly pass over it. For this scene to work, EJ/Miss Wilder must be seen to be unfair. The rocking has to be subtle, almost unnoticeable until Miss Wilder points it out. Then someone needs to be let off when she stops. Without playing these beats, it makes no sense when Laura out of nowhere suddenly announces that she will rock the desk and bursts into song. I’m afraid I Want to Rock was too much of a temptation to the writers and they put in a scene that seems to have come out of a bad 1950s movie complete with Laura singing “I will teach you to rebel” and causing complete chaos in the classroom. As the scene now plays, I would have sent the girls home too and I think in this version EJ is perfectly justified in doing so which again just makes Laura seem stupid and obnoxious. The only thing that redeems it at all is Nellie’s smirks which at least gives you something to hang the scene on, but not much.
Second, when Laura tells Almanzo she won’t go with him after she leaves the Brewsters. HE STOPS GOING TO GET HER! One of the most defining moments for Almanzo’s character (“Do you think I’d let a girl stay in trouble? What kind of a fellow do you think I am?” – The great kind, I know you’d never leave a girl in trouble, Manly, too bad these writers didn’t.) Personally I think this is Almanzo’s big hero moment, much more than getting the wheat. That was just physical courage, this was true character. The musical totally misses that. It was over a throw away line too, changing a line or two could be easily changed to shift the time line slightly without adding any scenes and make Laura miss him when she wasn’t going to Brewsters, when there wasn’t anything else in it for her. His not going also takes away Almanzo being clever, which I could live with, if they fixed the other part. In the book, he let her say what she wanted to, showed up anyway, and she was ready to go with him, clever, another defining movement, but not as important. Just don’t have him leave her there!
The third scene that needed help was that Laura made this huge sacrifice in teaching at Brewsters to get money to send Mary to college. Then she gets the money and Pa says, “No thanks, she got a scholarship” belittling everything Laura has done and endured. I could have slapped Mary myself at that point. This seems to be just so Laura could get a new dress for the story. They could have easily said keep enough for a dress for yourself Laura and given the rest to Mary. It would streamline the scene and add to the payoff for the audience if Laura’s sacrifice meant something.
Although I think it still needs some work, it was a great experience. I will even give them credit for where they did combine characters, they did so in a way that made sense (Kevin Sullivan should take notes on how to do this.) The show kept your attention from beginning to end and I do think they mostly kept to the spirit of the books. They structured the show to support their themes of settling the west and Laura growing up and if they sometimes use a sledge hammer when a delicate pick would have been subtler and more in tune with Wilder’s work, it does get the message across.
UPDATE: This is another of my most popular posts that I’m reblogging. Re-reading it now, I think it’s a good review and I don’t have much to add, but I will direct you to another post I did on the history of this musical.
Sarah S. Uthoff is main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+,LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.