Friday, April 9, 2010

review of *Little House on the Prairie: The Musical*

Posted on Fri, Apr 9, 2010 at 8:06 AM

Well, its better than the TV show. Remember how Michael Landon would do that little chin-dip and grin, signifying that tonights moral lesson had been learned?

Director Francesca Zambellos production of the Little House musical mostly avoids that kind of preachment, with comic snipes undercutting most of the saccharine moments. (When the Ingalls first gapes at all their new treeless and grassy acreage, the littlest daughter deadpans, Theres nothing there.) Even better, Zambello practically conducts a clinic in imaginative staging, instant scene changes and the creation of sudden crowd energy onstage.

While the headliners are Steven Blanchard as Pa Ingalls (whos macho and kind all at once, bestriding his homestead in a variety of dirtied boots) and Melissa Gilbert as Ma (absent for the Spokane shows due to minor back surgery) and while Gilberts understudy replacement, Meredith Inglesby, brings grace and a strong voice to the role the fact is that Ma isnt that big a role. (The fact that the roles usually played by Inglesby, who is Blanchards real-life wife, include a schoolmarm and a seriously depressed housewife stuck on a treeless, frozen prairie suggests the kind of range that Inglesby has. The show holds a moment after Mas first entrance, anticipating the applause that no doubt usually greets Gilberts first entrance; but Spokane theatergoers shouldnt avoid this affecting and imaginative show just because Gilberts not appearing in it.)

The real standouts in this production, however, are the three young actors who play the central coming-of-age role, Laura; Lauras beau and eventual husband, Almanzo Wilder; and Lauras conceited rival, Nellie Oleson.

As Laura, Kara Lindsay is hampered by an opening solo, Thunder, thats meant to express the eventual authors youthful exuberance and wanderlust but which doesnt have as much energy as the assembly of hopeful homesteaders in the following number, Up Ahead. For comic scenes, Lindsay projects a squeaky-mischievous voice that complements her impish charm.

It isnt the ring curls, knee dips and proferred wrists that define Kate Loprests coquettish and haughty Nellie. Loprest has the shows most expressive soprano voice and best comedic gestures. In Without an Enemy, a second-act bedroom number, Loprest slumps and jumps and hops all over her bed, all in contrast to Laura, working by candlelight behind a scrim, in darkness. And Loprest can wring Lucille Ball comedy out of simply climbing up and over a wooden fence, with hilarious effect.

As Lauras love interest, Almanzo, Kevin Massey has the athleticism that explains why he got to understudy Tarzan in the Disney musical on Broadway. In Faster, Zambello directs Massey and Lindsay to use a simple device reins hooked to the stage floor, coordinated with riding-in-a-buggy movements that transmute into a kind of love duet thats tentative, then feisty. Throughout, Massey has a jaunty confidence that marks him as an able horseman.

Blanchards best moment, meanwhile, arrives early, in a tribute to natural beauty (The Prairie Moves), sung against a starry background.

Zambello, who has extensive experience in directing opera, repeatedly appeals to the audiences imagination: We are there in constructing all those clapboard houses. Its like wish fulfillment: Imagine a schoolhouse, a snowed-in shack, a dusty horse race and suddenly its there, with viewers picking up just enough clues to share in the vision.

Certainly her staging outweighs Rachel Portmans music: Only one or two of the shows tunes linger in the mind.

The Ill Be Your Eyes sequence that closes Act One, moreover, reverts to the sentimental excesses of the TV show. Lauras sister Mary (Alessa Neeck) undergoes a misfortune, and Lauras character suddenly goes in for self-sacrifice and acting Good in ways that she had specifically repudiated just minutes before.

The shows co-originator with Zambello back at the Guthrie in Minneapolis in July 2008, Adrianne Lobel, keeps her scenic designs cyc alive with a succession of cloud formations and prairie sunsets; Mark McCulloughs lighting brought a high-noon glare to the upbeat townspeople scenes while remaining suitably gloomy for all the adversity that the Ingalls family confronts.

Jess Goldsteins costume designs kept tomboy Laura in drab prairie homespuns while at one point bedecking her nemesis, that snooty Oleson girl, in a flashy pink gown complete with wispy parasol.

The dance designs of Michael Dansicker and Eric Sean Fogel are at their most inventive in Fire in the Kitchen, when the Ingalls familys hand-rubbing and foot-stomping morph into a jig: double-clap, lift your skirts, waggle heads, go arm-in-arm.

Richard Carseys orchestra contributed, among many other effects, an ominous clarinet for the onset of sickness and a lively fiddle for the familys happier moments.

At the INB Center through Sunday, April 11

[ photo: from the original production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, July 2008 ]

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