If a family show is going to succeed, there has to be a reason for Mom and Dad to return when Junior begs to go see it again and again and again.
Disney and Pixar know this. The husband-and-wife bickering in The Incredibles, the way Woody and Buzz drop pop culture references in Toy Story — the tykes miss the point, but their parents smile.
The musical version of Little House on the Prairie (at the INB Center, April 8-11) knows this, too. For a smiley-face musical with a lot of wholesome singin’ and dancin’, Little House carries some baggage. The homesteaders of the 1880s break out into song while dodging obstacles like fire and blizzards; poverty, hard work and famine; discrimination against immigrants; the dangers of suffering from disease in a remote area; depression caused by long, cold winters.
Director Francesca Zambello — who’s been with the show since before its July 2008 premiere in Minneapolis, and who’s overseen all the revisions undertaken before the current national tour started five months ago — adds to the list: “land, independence, the meaning of community and family, how people endure hardships. All the heavy stuff is for the adults,” she says.
But the action — “the movement, the choreography, the appeals to the imagination,” as Zambello says — is what Little House on the Prairie, the musical, offers to kids.
Horses, for example, play a big part in the show, but they’re all imaginary. And the central couple’s relationship depends on audience members entering into a childlike, imaginary realm: “Almanzo is a horseman — Laura actually falls in love with his horses before she falls for him,” Zambello says. “There’s a courtship scene in the back of a buggy, and you never see the horses, even though their movements are implied. In the horse race sequence, you don’t see the horses.” A fire without flames, a snowstorm without snowflakes — Little House relies on the “let’s-pretend” instinct.
The simplicity derives from the hardscrabble lives that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s characters lived. “The choreography, the sets, the costumes — everything emanates from the characters,” Zambello says, “These people had nothing. But they built their own houses. So we kept the stagecraft simple.”
The Ingalls family in Little House may be full of sisters, but that doesn’t limit the show’s kid-appeal. “Boys like the show because it has a lot of male energy, with all the building and the prairie and the animals. So it doesn’t feel like a girl show,” Zambello says. “And then girls like it because the show has the close relationship between Ma and Laura, with Ma teaching Laura how to grow up to be a strong, independent, free-thinking woman.”
That mother-daughter relationship, however, has taken a detour around Spokane. Melissa Gilbert — who played Laura (“Half-Pint”) in the TV show back in the ‘70s — is undergoing minor surgery on her back and won’t appear as Ma Ingalls in the Spokane shows. (She’ll be replaced by Meredith Inglesby.)
Less nostalgia for the parents, then, but still plenty of action for the kids.
Little House on the Prairie (with Meredith Inglesby substituting for Melissa Gilbert) will be performed on Thursday, April 8, at 7:30 pm; Friday, April 9, at 8 pm; Saturday, April 10, at 2 pm and 8 pm; and Sunday, April 11, at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets: $30-$58. Visit ticketswest.com or call (800) 325-SEAT.