This Guthrie Theatre production of Little House on the Prairie is currently on tour after opening in Minneapolis two years ago where it received mixed reviews. There is no need to recount the plot of the musical here except to say that the original books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the subsequent television show produced, directed and starring Michael Landon had well deserved popularity – as well as imitators (including the current Canadian TV sit-com hit, Little Mosque on the Prairie). Still and all, TV is not musical theatre, and as competent, charming and well acted as Karen Grassle was in the role of Ma on the TV show that ran for nine seasons from 1974 to 1984, the gimmicky idea of replacing her 25 years later with Melissa Gilbert in the stage musical is an altogether different kettle of fish.
Suffice it to say that after much trial and tribulation involving a wheat crop that succumbs to a prairie fire, Mary’s (Alessa Neeck) blindness resulting from a bout with scarlet fever, Laura’s (Kara Lindsay) own journey to find happiness with Almanzo (Kevin Massey) that includes a frontier courtship with fast sleigh rides and lively hoedowns where even Pa (Steve Blanchard) picks up the fiddle and joins in the fun; Laura finally tells her beau that “she will” but that she could never abide the word “obey” in their marriage vows. Good feminist that he is, Almanzo readily agrees and Laura soon becomes his - I apologize in advance for this - little spouse on the prairie.
The set design by Adrianne Lobel is all big sky with lots of sun and clouds. The score by Rachel Portman is all big power ballads with lots of half and whole notes ą la the Frank Wildhorn school of musical theatre composition.
The acting is mostly pedestrian with the men brandishing their Winchester rifles and all speaking in booming baritones with the women generally in a more subdued kind of cloying baby talk. You can tell when the men get pissed off because they cock the level-action handles on their Winchesters with great resolve to show that they mean business.
The choreography is not very challenging consisting mainly of a few opportunities for Ms. Gilbert to engage in a not very lively two-step that allows her to flash her bloomers for the boomers several times. The creators of the piece seemed to think that this went so well in the show that it should be reprised at the curtain call – which it is. Another challenge is that Gilbert’s singing voice is prone to flat which she did regularly in her second act solo “Wild Child”.
The best performances are delivered by Kara Lindsay and Kevin Massey, especially in their duets which actually approach (but do not quite reach) moving moments. But the real star of the show is Kate Loprest in the role of Nellie Oleson. Fans of the book and the TV show will remember Nellie as that uppity, spoiled daughter of Mr. Oleson, the greedy capitalist who owned the local General Store.
Although in the main Loprest seems to be rechanneling her Glinda bits from a recent tour of Wicked, it’s all done to great comic effect resulting in a huge applause for her when she takes a final bow at the curtain call. This becomes just a wee bit embarrassing when, moments later, Melissa Gilbert must take her final solo bow to much less applause prompting Ms. Loprest to join the clapping herself for Ms. Gilbert in an effort to signal to the audience that Ms. Gilbert is the big star who deserves the big applause because, let’s face it folks, she’s the one many of you came to see.
In an advance piece interview with one of the Toronto
papers, Melissa Gilbert, now 46, was quoted as saying that “the ultimate goal
for the show” is to bring it into New York for a Broadway run. Gotham theatre
critics need not worry about sharpening their pencils anytime soon.