Monday, April 19, 2010

Little House on the Prairie

It’s difficult to determine what creators (Book by Rachel Sheinkin, music by Rachel Portman, Lyrics by Donna DiNovelli) had in mind when they set out to bring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” to the stage.

It has the feel of something written by devoted fans of the books or the10 year television program–or both, who decided to stuff the whole thing into 2 hours and 40 minutes. It’s a whirlwind that takes Laura from little girl to teacher to bride and which encompasses snow storms (great technical effect by Adrianne Lobel), destructive fires, and more cloud-filled skies than you’ve ever seen in your life.

In one respect, it is the sweeping saga of the homesteaders who settled the mid-west and as such it has the potential for being the “Oklahoma” of its day, but the music isn’t nearly as good, and there is no time to get to know most of the characters in any depth, though there certainly is enough spirit to go around.

It’s not the performances at all which are to blame, but the whole show itself. Kara Lindsay is delightful as Laura, with an enthusiasm for life that threatens to explode out of her body at any moment. She has a big voice, boundless energy, and an engaging personality certain to win over the hardest of hearts.

Sister Mary (Alessa Neeck) is the “good girl,” quiet and obedient, but lovingly winsome and who seems to accept her blindness with aplomb. In fact the show never dwells at all on how she feels about the loss of her sight. “I’m blind now? Oh. Ok. Where do I go next?” (Not a quote from the show)

Anastasia Korbal is charming as the youngest daughter, Carrie, and is head an shoulders better than twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, who played the role on TV.

Steve Blanchard is big and strong and has a big, strong voice as well. He makes quite a good Charles (“Pa”)

Sadly, the weakest of the family is probably the reason why most people will buy tickets to this show. Melissa Gilbert, who played the role of Laura all those years on television, is an OK Caroline Ingalls (“Ma”). There’s nothing wrong with her performance, it just can’t quite match that of her co-stars, especially vocally. Fortunately, she only has one solo to sing (“Wild Child”) which is very sweet and I only counted four actual notes that she had to hit. She pulled it off, but she’s no singer.

The real fun character to watch is Kate Loprest as bad girl Nellie Oleson. Loprest received applause at her first entrance, those bouncing blonde curls identifying her immediately to fans, and she did not disappoint, though she was more fun than her TV counterpart. Her “Without an Enemy” may have been the best solo song in the show. And she definitely makes an impression on a fence.

Kevin Massey plays Almanzo Wilder, whom Laura eventually weds, though theirs is a strange courtship. Massey also gives a strong performance and his numbers driving a team of horses are inventive.

(It is also interesting to note that Gilbert’s son, Michael Boxleitner, is making his stage debut as Willie Oleson in this production.)

Scenes which used the entire company to either travel across the country (great visual of a moving wagon train), or move about a growing town were the best. Set pieces are simple, but able to be mixed and matched in ingenious ways to create several looks.

The production has some interesting visual effects with wildly colorful sunsets, a star-filled sky, an impressive snowstorm, and a fire effect that was decidedly realistic. Sound Designer Carl Casella also had some interesting effects for horses.

I suspect “Little House on the Prairie” will be more of a hit with people who are NOT familiar with the television program as with those who are. A noticeable number of people left at intermission – no less than seven seats next to us, for example, were empty during the second act.

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