Melissa Gilbert Book Tour

Melissa Gilbert Signing My Book
Melissa Gilbert Signing My Book

September 16, 2014,was the day Melissa Gilbert’s second book based on her connection to the Little House on the Prairie (TV Show) was released her My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours. It’s a combination of 80 recipes from Gilbert’s personal collection and a series of short scrapbooks of behind the scenes stories and personal photos. She spent this day in Iowa, at the Cedar Rapids Public Library at 2 pm and at the Iowa City Public Library at 7 pm, with taking time for an hour long radio interview. I attended the Cedar Rapids Public Library show and roughly 250 people attended including some 30 who watched from a remote room. They sold out of the 95 cookbooks in 20 minutes.

From Iowa City Public Library

I saw the presentation at the Cedar Rapids Public Library live and got a copy of the recording from the Iowa City Public Library. Catch the repeats of her Iowa City visit on the local library’s public access television channel. I put together a news report on Gilbert’s visit to Cedar Rapids below.

Melissa Gilbert Visits the CRPL for The Prairie Cookbook Launch from Sarah Uthoff on Vimeo.

I watched a version of her presentation the US National Archives recently uploaded about Melissa Gilbert about her new Prairie Cookbook. Unfortunately both the host and Gilbert have some factual trouble near the beginning when talking about the real Laura and history. Then she steers into her own life and producing the show which is much more interesting. I especially like that she now refuses to sign copies of Laura’s books because as an author she thinks that is inappropriate, which I totally support. Gilbert also talks about her experience on Dancing With the Stars (which I hadn’t heard her do anywhere else). She talks a little bit about how the studio school was like a one-room school and how the other school children were mostly relatives of the cast and crew. Sean Penn and his brother were two of them because their father sometimes directed the show. She also answers what happened with Melissa and her brother Jonathan. She was asked about the Walnut Grove 40th Anniversary. Check out their press release which talks about the many Laura Ingalls Wilder connections with the National Archives including links and check out the video below:
http://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2014/nr14-95.html

My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House

In the US National Archives interview she mentions her appearance in Parade Magazine, here’s the link which includes one of her recipes:
http://parade.condenast.com/337314/walterscott/melissa-gilbert-dishes-on-her-favorite-recipes

Gilbert was also  interviewed on Talk of Iowa by Charity Nebbe. There is some repetition from the US National Archives video above, but also some great original stuff. My favorite bit is when she talks about the food on the show including KFC fried chicken and Dinty Moore Beef Stew.
http://iowapublicradio.org/post/actress-melissa-gilbert-life-after-little-house-prairie

UPDATE: If you couldn’t come to either of the shows in Iowa, check out this listing of her other stops around the country.
http://www.abramsbooks.com/myprairiecookbook/

Sarah S. Uthoff is the 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 FacebookTwitterGoogle+, 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.

September 2014 Laura Ingalls Wilder Events

IMG_0176July and September tend to be the biggest months for Laura Ingalls Wilder related events around the country. If I’ve missed one please let me know.

Pepin WI

Laura Days – Sept. 13 and 14, 2014
http://www.lauradays.org

Independence KS

The annual fall Lamplight on the Prairie evening guided tour will take place on September 27th.  Lamplight on the Prairie takes you on a guided lamplight tour of our site with a special twist- at each tour stop you will meet the people from the pages of Laura’s books and Kansas history.  Our living history reenactors will bring history to life before your eyes.  Tours begin every half an hour and are limited to 15 people per tour.

Tickets can be purchased online  or in their gift shop in person beginning September 2, 2014.  We will launch an event page for Lamplight on September 2nd with the link to ticket sales and additional information about the event.

Mansfield MO

Laura’s Memories Pageant – Sept. 5-6, 12-13, 19-20, 2014

Wilder Days Sept. 19-20, 2014 Laura Historian William T. Anderson will be speaking and Lucy Lee Flippin (Eliza Jane Wilder from the NBC TV Show)
http://www.laurasmemories.com

Malone/Burke NY

Annual Harvest Festival & Civil War Living History Encampment Sept. 27 & 28, 2014

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library

Good news, I’m returning as speaker!

Laura Ingalls Wilder Remembered –In the Kitchen With Laura – Sept. 1, 2014 11 am and 2 pm
With Prairie Walks lead by Park Rangers at 9:30 am and 3:00 pm
http://www.hoover.archives.gov/pressreleases/Labor%20Day%20LIW%20PR.pdf

Other Iowa

Melissa Gilbert’s Book Tour has come to Iowa. Come see her on Tuesday, September 16, 2014.
– 2:00 pm Cedar Rapids Public Library
http://newbobooks.com/events
7:00pm to 8:00pm at the Iowa City Public Library.
http://arts.uiowa.edu/events/live-prairie-lights-melissa-gilbert/2014-09-16

If you can’t come to either of the shows in Iowa, check out this listing of her other stops around the country.
http://www.abramsbooks.com/myprairiecookbook/

Sarah S. Uthoff is the 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 FacebookTwitterGoogle+, 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.

History of Little House on the Prairie the Musical

One of the top ten posts is one simply called Musical Launched. I’m figuring that a lot of people hit that not looking for the specific musical I’m talking about, but as it’s entirely talking about news then current I wasn’t sure what I could even do to update it, so I decided to write a completely new post about the history of the musical as I know it instead and I’ll add a link on the Top 10 post.

Little House on the Prairie the Musical T-Shirt
Little House on the Prairie the Musical T-Shirt

Failed Attempt

The idea of Little House musical was not a new one. Laura’s Memories (aka the Mansfield pageant) has been a musical from the very beginning (and with a lot more have to sing along numbers than the show that came out of the Guthrie in my opinion). In addition the New York Times reported in its June 9, 1989 issue that musical based on the “Little House” books called Prairie would be heading to Broadway the following year. (It didn’t, but apparently did get as far as a complete draft of the book and a slate of musical numbers).

Started at the Guthrie

I first posted about this new musical the Guthrie was putting together when I saw the press release. My first post about it was dated November 16, 2007. The Guthrie in Minneapolis, Minnesota,  is considered a regional theater, but is an important one nationally. Many national level actors and actors come to do a run here. They put together this production and did an initial run. It was a big hit. It wasn’t in their largest theater (they have multiple theater spaces in one big building), but it was the medium size one and the initial run was extended by several weeks due to strong ticket sales.

Check out this post for a taste of what it was like to attend a show at the Guthrie:
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2008/10/01/guthrie-logistic-tips/

Check out the photos from Playbill from the Guthrie production:
http://www.playbill.com/news/article/print/119925.html

Read my review here:
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2008/10/08/little-house-the-musical/

I had also written a more formal review that I debated whether needed published too or not. I finally decided to go ahead and post it some time later when I found it languishing in my drafts after my road show experience.
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/guthrie-version-review/

Starring Melissa Gilbert

The biggest news item was when it was announced that Melissa Gilbert had agreed to join the production as Ma. Gilbert has spent a lot of time distancing herself from the Laura role, her new adult persona most strongly symbolized by her term as president of SAG, the actor union. However, she agreed to return to the “franchise” this time taking on the role of Ma. Part of this was the challenge of the role, Gilbert hadn’t ever done musical theater. The part was adjusted for her vocal range and dance ability, but you can’t say she didn’t give it her all, shortly after the national tour completed she had to have serious back surgery because her back was broken by her on stage exertions.

Early publicity about Gilbert joining the show:
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2008/06/02/melissa-gilbert-to-play-ma

Gilbert quoted “Every girl has a Laura in them”:
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/a-little-laura-in-all-of-us/

Revamp

The show didn’t go directly into the road show. There was a gap of months before we found out there was even going to be one which is part of what I was reporting on in the post that was in the top 10. Slowly towns were added from Connecticut to Canada with many spots in between including the one I saw it at in Sioux Falls. Changes were made and some of the cast members, who either were unwilling to travel with a road production or had other commitments, were swapped out.

This NPR news story falls after the Guthrie run finished, but before the road show. It also includes snippets of various songs from the show.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93644080

Cast Visits Homesites

Since the initial production was so close to the Laura homesites in the Twin Cities, it inspired several cast members to make the trip. Most of the major cast made a trip separately or in small groups to visit the northern homesites. Actors said that it helped them understand the material to get a feel for the land. Finally during the road show the entire cast was brought up to De Smet.

The entire cast was bused up to De Smet to have a press conference at the Ingalls Homestead in June 2010. Find links to it in this post – the bottom one has video:
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/press-conference-in-de-smet/

Musical Hits the Road

They also tightened up the production which often happens over the course of the production. They really didn’t address any of the problems I pointed out in my review, but it was a better show when I saw it in Sioux Falls. The show had ended in Fall 2008, reports of the national tour being a go and slowly the places it would stop came through February 2009, and the national tour started October 2009 and ran through early summer 2010.

Dates slowly trickled in. As I reported in this post, they had just made a booking for Canada making the road show an international one. The article link still worked from February 2009:
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/musical-goes-international/

Report on attending the road show version in Sioux Falls, South Dakota:
https://trundlebedtales.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/on-the-way-to-the-roadshow/

Sell Out of Merchandise

A couple of months after the final booking, no more news came and then there was a sale to clean out the merchandise. Apparently the company that had traveled around with them selling souvenirs believed it was over. That was the final word we’ve heard.

Next Step

So my family has a streak of theater in it, in fact my father actually teaches theater lighting, so while I can’t exactly follow the theater scene from Iowa as well as I could from New York or even Chicago, I do follow it. A show at this point, with a fairly successful one year run under its belt, normally has one of three things happen next. Will it:

  • Re-launch road show for a further run?
  • Move to Broadway?
  • Release scripts for purchase for local productions?

But none of these things has actually happened. The fact that they haven’t released the scripts yet, which could be making them money, sounds like they are hoping some sort of re-launch of either the road show or a Broadway or off-Broadway production. But I haven’t heard a further peep.

Their website frontpage is still up, but it won’t let you in. It does play a medley of the songs:
http://www.littlehousethemusical.com

You can get to the archived version of the website here. It includes interviews with some of the people involved, their blog, etc.

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 FacebookTwitterGoogle+,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.

Guthrie Version Review

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.

On the way to Little House on the Prairie the Roadshow

If you’re interested in Little House on the Prairie the Musical, check out this post.

I finally made it. I saw the musical at the Guthrie last year and I’ve been trying to get to see the roadshow all year. A bustrip fell through when it opened in Minnesota. I just couldn’t make the schedule work out for Wisconsin, but FINALLY I got tickets for Sioux Falls and two friends to go with me and we headed out. WAGONS HO!

OK, so it was Seebring ho! Same principle. AAA said it was about 5 1/2 hours to Sioux Falls, but they were off. At least it took us longer than that. One of my friends insisted on driving the whole way, so I’m sure it was an especially long day for him. We ate lunch at Trumbles in Albert Lea. Good place to stop if you’re passing through on your way to say Mankato (wink).

It was a new route for my friends, so I made sure we stopped at the giant Jolly Green Giant at Blue Earth and the giant cement tipi just outside of Sioux Falls. Did you know they have a museum downtown about the Green Giant Company? I didn’t either. Didn’t stop this time, but it’s on my list now. Luck seemed to be with us when the gift shop at the Jolly Green Giant’s feet (it isn’t always), but then we drove into a torrent of a storm. The temperature dropped 20 degrees from one side of the front to the other, but luckily no hail as the weather radio predicted, just lots of hard rain. Finally it calmed down to  a steady rain. Not good when we were planning on walking to the theater.

Good news it was easy to find our hotel. The Country Inn and Suites which the Washington Pavillion assured me that many of the people who perform there stay at. It really was a pretty hotel and as I normally only hit Sioux Falls when I’m taking I-90 instead of Highway 14 which means I’m in a hurry, I had no idea they do guided trolley rides and have a very nice river walk which the hotel sat right on. Who knew?

We picked the wrong restaurant for supper. It took forever to get our food and we didn’t get out of there until a little after 6:30. The show started at 7 pm and while we had directions and a map none of us had ever been there before. Adrenilne time.

It wasn’t that far a walk and we found the 1906 Sioux Falls high school that has been made over into an arts center. The large auditorium with the stage was only part of it. There was a large diverse crowd milling about with a good smattering of girls in prairie dresses. De Smet had a large display up for Destination Laura and I knew the cast had been at the Ingalls Homestead for a press conference that morning.

Sign on the door, “Insights into Production a discusion with the cast 6:15”. After I called on Friday and they swore they weren’t doing anything like that. GRRRR! It couldn’t have been too long though because by 6:50 the stage was totally empty. Still GRRRRR!

The tickets were at the Will Call window just like they were supposed to be. Success. AND they really were very good seats. I’ve had better (up in PEI for Anne of Green Gables the musical – a production the producers of this one really should watch before they do anything else with it), but these were very, very good and there was even one with a place for my friend to stretch out his leg after all that driving.

On the way in I passed Dean Butler in the hall, looking very producer like, and as we both were hurrying to our seats so I let it go and didn’t say anything to him. I only said to my friend,” that’s Dean Butler.” He was in town for a screening of the Farmer Boy documentary and a preview of the Laura one. If I had known sooner we’d have scheduled for the 2nd instead and gone to that screening too. Oh well, more about the actual play tomorrow.

UPDATED June 27 2017: I added the link at the top and the signature block at the bottom.

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving 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. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

Musical Announces NJ stop

Little House on the Prairie is coming to New Jersey, specifically the Paper Mill Playhouse Brookside Drive Millburn, NJ 07041 
http://www.papermill.org

Paper Mill Playhouse has been announced as a stop on the cross country tour of the musical presented at the Guthrie in Minneapolis last year. It will be there for approximately a month beginning sometime in Sept. 2009
http://www.playbill.com/news/article/print/126028.html

So far Denver is the only other city that has announced that it will host a leg of the tour and the official musical website isn’t listing a schedule or even a list of hosting cities. The news release also claims that it is booked through June 2010, but again no other stops are named. Melissa Gilbert is confirmed in the part of Ma and that new songs have been added (please let them have dropped the clunkers and fixed those two key scenes that needed work too).

Review: Little House on the Prairie – The Musical

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.

SPOILERS BELOW.

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 FacebookTwitterGoogle+,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.