AISLE SAY New Jersey


Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Music by Rachel Portman
Lyrics by Donna di Novello
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Featuring Melissa Gilbert as Ma
Paper Mill Playhouse / Millburn NJ

Reviewed by David Spencer

Almost immediately the musical Little House on the Prairie
telegraphs that it’s in trouble. The overture (music by Rachel Portman) makes a lot of big overture-y noises, previewing a ballad, an 11:00 number, an up tempo song, and though the language is familiar, the tunes are utterly nondescript—my companion of the
evening even called it “The Anonymous Overture.”

               Then the curtain opens on teenaged Laura Ingalls (the sprightly and engaging Kara Lindsay) singing a song called “Thunder” about wagon wheels and going out west and stuff; but it isn’t really about her except tangentially (she’s excited), nor is it really about what she wants, except sortakinda vaguely—the concomitant problem being we haven’t properly met her yet—so the show kicks off with an under-defined main character and without properly articulating a theme for the evening. Then the ensemble comes on and everybody’s a-headin’ out west, and they sing “Up Ahead” a song about that.

               Then the rest of the Ingalls family comes on (if you know the Laura Ingalls Wilder books—or the TV series based on them, that shares the musical’s and the first book’s title—you’re familiar with the clan): Laura’s two sisters, the younger Carrie (Carly Rose Sonenclar) and the older Mary (Alessa Neeck), Pa (Steve Blanchard) and Ma (Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura on TV).

               Now pay attention, because this is important:

               Ma’s concerned about moving out west. She wants the girls to be safe, to have a steady and secure life. “I’ll keep them safe, Caroline,” says Pa, “On my life I will.” And then Ma relents a little, negotiating and says, “I want to live where there are trees…I want a house with curtains on the windows…and I want the girls to go to school.”

               Then they all get musical theatre happy and join the ensemble in singing part two of “Up Ahead.”

               You tell me what’s wrong. Read it again.

               Here’s a hint: look at what’s sung. Look at what’s not.

               That’s right. What’s sung is a generic song about travelin’. What’s not—is what one of the primary decision-making characters, the mother of the brood, wants if she’s to agree to go west.

               Not only does this forsake dramatic tension, it misses using the score to set up tension and dramatic irony to follow—because the house, trees, school and normalcy that Ma wants for her kids will be precisely the most challenging things to realize out West. There’ll be bad weather, sparse crops, scarlet fever that leaves one of the daughters blind…it’s a classic structure. And it gives the authors a clear, clean, classic (yet not clichéd) way into their show. Yet they jump right over it.

               The evening goes by with scene after scene and song after song always missing the mark in just this fashion. As an inevitable corollary, it also suffers from a confusion of tone, bouncing between an attempt to emulate Rodgers and Hammerstein Americana and extreme musical comedy (throwing a disproportionate amount of material to Laura’s well-dressed, stuck-up rival Nellie, played as if she were Glenda in Wicked by Kate Loprest, who, as I consult her bio—sure enough!—has played Glenda in Wicked; and I hasten to add, that’s not a criticism: she’s good at it, and doing exactly what the misguided creative team has hired her to do).

               The book by Rachel Sheinkin  is the most competent of the authorship elements in the economical way it condenses the grand arc of the Wilder books, but that efficiency is compromised by there being no discernable underlying theme to give the adaptation resonance or cohesion. The lyrics by Donna di Novelli are simply bland, trivial, forced and awful.

               As for Melissa Gilbert in the role of Ma—she’s not as effective a stage actress as she is a TV one, she doesn’t have theatrical wattage, but she’s absolutely able, attractive, competent and agreeable, which is all that matters. Because clearly—and wisely, perhaps the one genuinely wise architectural stroke of the show—the role of Ma has been conceived as the “guest star” spot. Of course you cast Melissa Gilbert to open, that's your name power "draw," but she won’t stay with the show forever, so you make hers a role attractive and musically simple enough to take on a series of popular “guest stars” with similar TVQ, and as-limited musical theatre gifts, after she leaves the production. But you’d think such a “guest star” spot would actually treat the actress it’s hosting as an actual guest. The role is so blandly written, her musical material so uninspired, cliché-ridden and slender, that poor Ms. Gilbert is rendered almost unimportant. And it takes a LOT of blandness to do that.

               The rest of the cast (including reliable Broadway stalwart Steve Blanchard as Pa) work hard and well under direction by Francesca (The Little Mermaid) Zambello, which is as bland as the material.

               It’s no little irony either that the musical Little House is about a girl who grows up to be a teacher. Because not one of the creative team seems to have a grip on so much as Musical Theatre 101…

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