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“They’re making a musical of what?” Some of the most incongruous and least likely suspects such as The Color Purple, Legally Blonde, and Little Shop of Horrors have made such a transition with varying critical and public acclaim. Now comes the musical adaptation of Little House on the Prairie with this effort having the double whammy of being preceded by both a popular series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and one of the most beloved TV programs that ran from 1974 to 1983. After having its premiere and initial run in the fall of 2008 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and then a short stint in New Jersey, Little House is now on a national tour across the Heartland and Southland. Broadway Series South is presenting this unabashed paean to the American spirit at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium.
You know that a production is placing all its revenue generating eggs in one basket when all publicity places the featured star’s name as big as the title. In this case, it is Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura, the TV show’s central character and narrator. Now, all grown up, Gilbert plays Caroline “Ma” Ingalls, the strong-willed and wise pioneer woman.
This is a coup of casting, marketing, and shameless appeal to the millions in the built-in fan base. That is why the atmosphere at the theater turned dark and fearful when the lights went down and that resonant, unwelcome voice began: “For tonight’s performance the part of…” Well, it tuned out that it was “merely” the lead and most important part of Laura who for the Raleigh run would be Megan Campanile, replacing Kara Lindsay.
Although many of the Little House books are best described as historical fiction rather than strict autobiography, this is still young Laura’s personal story of America’s westward expansion and her family’s hardships and triumphs. Campanile, as Laura, begins the play with a Broadway-big-as-lights number extolling her spirit and the lure of the western prairie. The exuberance was overwhelming and failed to recede to levels appropriate to the storyline throughout much of the show. Laura is middle child to younger Carrie and big sis Mary who becomes blind as a result of scarlet fever. Alessa Neeck, as Mary, is the most gifted singer by far of the female leads, and her duet with Laura in “I’ll Be Your Eyes” is a heartfelt lump-in-your throat moment and one of the best-crafted songs in the show.
The comic relief of an evening that skates dangerously close to maudlin sentimentality is the brilliant portrayal of Nellie, Laura’s “enemy,” by Kate Loprest. If you could imagine a 19th century portrayal of a mean sorority girl this would be it. Throw in a few “like, Omigod’s,” and the resemblance would be complete.
The best all-around singer/dancer/actor (i.e., musical performer) vote undoubtedly goes to Kevin Massey, playing Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s suitor and eventual husband. His skill, poise, and ease in this role foreshadows a big career with many plum roles to come.
Steve Blanchard as Charles “Pa” Ingalls portrayed the strength of pioneer men along with a pleasing baritone — which brings us to “Ma’s” singing. Melissa Gilbert’s one real solo, in the second act lament “Wild Child,” seemed strained and under pitch throughout. Other than that, the music was smartly written to vocally include the star only as part of an ensemble.
The score, by Rachel Portman, is well constructed and utilitarian to the story. I give her much credit for originality and not falling into pseudo-Copland “Prairie” style mimicry.
The set, for the most part, consisted of dragging in and dragging out the same “little house” in different configurations that also served as the church. Lighting was effective, but non-intrusive; and most of the time we gazed upon a background of a peaceful prairie sunset. The few large-scale dance numbers were predominantly choreographic boilerplate, although colorful and well performed.
Most of the big production numbers took place in the first act as the settlers moved into their new 160-acre tracts of Uncle Sam’s generous subdivision as part of the Homestead Act, signed in 1862 by President Lincoln. It was interesting that in the midst of this barely disguised backwards salute to Manifest Destiny that there were a couple of lines in the play where a few characters questioned the takeover of these lands from previous residents.
Little House on the Prairie is, indeed, a family show and as such becomes a significant expenditure. But it does transport you to a different time and place, you become engaged in the storyline, and the music and dance add to and punctuate the tale and the characters’ emotions. That is a pretty good batting average for an evening of musical theater. Whether Little House on the Prairie will have legs, and become a lasting addition to the musical-theater repertoire, remains to be seen, especially without grown-up TV series Laura playing “Ma.”
Little House on the Prairie continues through March 21st at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Please see our theatre calendar for details.