Before I give my take on the touring version of Little House on the Prairie, I found this previously unpublished review of the Guthrie version that I wrote and I think it might be helpful to read before I discuss the changes and improvements they’ve made.
Sarah S. Uthoff
Earlier this year the Guthrie Theater commissioned a new musical production of Little House on the Prairie. Excitement built as it was announced that Melissa Gilbert, most famous for playing Laura Ingalls Wilder on the TV show starring Michael Landon, would be playing Ma. Record first day ticket sales led them to extend the run by two weeks, now ending October 19th. I got to go see if it deserved all the excitement.
Excitement has been growing all year as word came out that the Guthrie, a landmark repertory theater in Minneapolis, was commissioning a new musical based on the work of pioneer and author Laura Ingalls Wilder. A new record was set for opening day ticket sales at the Guthrie, the initial run was lengthened by two weeks, and a 40 city tour seems to be on (Most of the northern Wilder sites sponsored trips to the play. De Smet will be taking a group on Oct. 18th. De Smet will get a little bit of a taste of what Walnut Grove has had all these years with the TV show with almost all the action taking place in De Smet, South Dakota.)
Heading up the cast is Melissa Gilbert as Ma, still best known for playing Laura Ingalls in the Michael Landon TV show and Steve Blanchard as Pa. The Ingalls family is rounded out by Kara Lindsay as Laura, Jenn Gambatese as Mary, and Maeve Moynihan as Carrie. Kevin Massey as Almanzo Wilder and Sara Jean Ford as Nellie Oleson round out the major characters, although there are many smaller supporting roles. The production is highly stylized and almost aggressively original and is just packed with things from almost all the books in the series, the TV show, and real life with original material.
The show is structured around two themes, one very broad, and one very personal. The broad theme is the settling of the west. They encompass songs and characters from a broad spectrum of people from all over from various countries. It’s supported by the bridging song “Uncle Sam where are you?” that comes up at each crisis as the settlers create a a new world from what they could take along, hard work and thought. As a group they face finding a homestead, the Hard Winter, disease, and a prairie fire that takes out the entire town’s wheat crop when it was “almost” ready to harvest. They use the Ingalls family as a close up example of one of these families and how the group gets through it all.
The second theme is how Laura grows up with the land. The first half of the show really emphasizes the tomboy or as they call it, “wild child” part of Laura’s early character to the point that many audience members I talked to didn’t really like the character during the first half and the word obnoxious springs to mind. I’m not sure that taking the characterization to such an extreme that they’ve lost one of the most defining characteristics of Laura, that people so strongly identify with her. However, this is tying into the theme of Laura growing up so there is a very strong contrast with her later behavior with room for a compromise between the two extremes.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the production is to exaggerate what they feel are important parts to make absolutely positively certain that you can’t possibly miss it. Another example of this is Carrie rocking the seat in the school. Where most of the time she was used (very effectively) as comic relief, this is where she pushes plot. They foreshadowed the shaking twice with comments about shaking and the wagon and then when she actually starts rocking the desk you can hear it in the back of theater. Miss Wilder, whose appearance and mannerisms closely mimic Lucky Lee Flippin’s version on the TV show, is a background. The unfairness as a set up is not considered important so is ignored in a rush to the second “Important point” of the scene where Laura rebels which is set up in scene reminiscent of a 1950s teen rebellion movie set to the lyrics “I want to rock” and “I will teach you to rebel.”
The Fever’n’ague scene from Little House on the Prairie is moved to DeSmet. This is used as a set up for the cause of Mary’s blindness. Mary going blind is a watershed moment in the production. Starting with the Mary/Laura duet “I’ll be your Eyes,” Laura tries to reject major parts of her personality in an effort “to be good.” This involves everything from finding a job teaching school at Brewsters and putting up with staying there to giving up on going with Almanzo. This tension is resolved in Melissa Gilbert’s lone solo “Wild Child” when she assures Laura she doesn’t have to give up her “wild” personality to be a grown up and good.
Nellie’s role is also enlarged, emphasizing the rivalry between her and Laura. Nellie is portrayed as much more of a serious rival for Almanzo’s affections. Nellie even gets her own solo about her rivalry with Laura. She’s really quite funny and likeable. The rivalry ends when Laura runs out with Ma’s blessing to find Almanzo and jump into his arms.
Almanzo is introduced early on as one of the settlers coming in and getting fed approximately when they lived in the Surveyor’s House, although they aren’t specific. A lot of his story is as he is working on his own homestead. He has an early solo “The Land Doesn’t Care How Old You Are.” One of his best scenes is when the bachelor homesteaders gather together after the wheat crops burns and drink, “Here’s to the Sod” a forgettable song that showcases a great performance by Almanzo as he cooks, flips, and tosses pancakes to the men with all the ease of a juggler. I swear I smelled the pancakes and when Manly pushes the stove off stage he seems to burn himself in an impressive performance. The first turning point of the show is when Almanzo goes to get Laura from Brewsters. As Almanzo and Laura begin to court they have brilliant duet “Faster/Slower” while they are in the sleigh going back and forth to Brewsters. This is one of their scenes that suffers most from changes to the storyline from the books.
Little House on the Prairie, book by Rachel Sheinkin, music by Rachel Portman, lyrics by Donna di Novelli, Director Francesca Zambello, Set designer Adrianne Lobel.
The musical Little House on the Prairie includes elements from Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years.
The cast is headed up by Melissa Gilbert as Ma, Steve Blanchard as Pa, Kara Lindsay as Laura Ingalls, Kevin Massey as Almanzo Wilder with strong support from Maeve Moynihan as Carrie Ingalls, and Sara Jean Ford as Nellie Oleson.
The twin themes of the show are homesteading and growing up. The homesteading theme is reflected in several songs describing the prairie, “Endless Sky” and “Make It Home.” The growing up theme is more interesting what is good, what Laura should do, what does good mean. Themes come back with “Farmer Boy” , “Endless Sky” and “Faster” and “Uncle Sam Where are You.” Progress slowly comes as wheat is burnt, but soot improves lightens soil, feels will survive.
The day we went the role of Laura, normally played by Kara Lindsay, was performed by Addi McDaniel.