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Little House on the Prairie – The Musical
A while back I caught wind of the fact that the Paper Mill Playhouse would be putting on Little House on the Prairie as a musical starting in September, starring Melissa Gilbert as “Ma” and directed by Francesca Zambello (director of Disney’s The Little Mermaid on Broadway). The East Coast premiere of this new musical was something that I needed to make sure got on my calendar for BSC Review. A few emails later, and the wife and I were on our way to the show over at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
An award-winning team has collaborated to make one of the best NEW musicals in decades. This heart-warming and joyous musical of the Ingalls family’s struggles and triumphs on the prairie as young Laura grows from childhood to adulthood, will leave you reveling in the pioneering spirit and core values on which our country was founded.
Now let us get a few things out of the way. I usually do not review plays. My medium of choice is television, but this has the crossover appeal, so it was a must-see for me. That being said, I do not see enough plays to really dig into the intricate details of play review, but I do know enough about what I find entertaining to give you my thoughts. For people that do not know me, yes, I do wear glasses, but, no, I do not have a beard, wear a tweed jacket, or carry a cane.
I would be remiss if I did not start with a cast list of the main players here.
Laura Ingalls . . . . . Kara Lindsay, Ma (Caroline Ingalls) . . . . . Melissa Gilbert, Pa (Charles Ingalls) . . . . . Steve Blanchard, Mary Ingalls . . . . . Alessa Neeck, Carrie Ingalls . . . . . Carly Rose Sonenclar, Almanzo Wilder . . . . . Kevin Massey, Robert Boast . . . . . Christian Whelan, Nellie Oleson . . . . . Kate Loprest, Eliza Wilder . . . . . Meredith Inglesby, Mr. Oleson . . . . . Todd Thurston, Dr. Tann . . . . . Shawn Hamilton, Owen . . . . . Will Ray, Mr. Brewster . . . . . Christian Whelan, Mrs. Brewster . . . . . Meredith Inglesby, Cap Garland . . . . . Kurt Engh, Willie Oleson . . . . . Michael Boxleitner, Ida . . . . . Jessica Hershberg, Sara Power . . . . . Caroline Innerbichler, Clarence Brewster . . . . . Brian Muller, Tommy . . . . . Michael Boxleitner, Ruby . . . . . Taylor Leigh Bera, Martha . . . . . Caroline Innerbichler, Blanche . . . . . Lizzie Klemperer
Now on to the show. It really only dawned on me at the end of the play that this was a show about Laura Ingalls and her stories rather than a story of the Ingalls family’s settling. From the director’s notes:
Our challenge was how to make the books sing. Which stories to tell? Eventually, we chose episodes in the later volumes when the Ingalls family settles in De Smet and Laura comes of age.
Now, I do not remember those particular episodes in the television show, which is where my Little House knowledge comes from. Really, though, I think I only remember Laura as a young girl in the television series, and my Little House trivia knowledge is a bit sparse these days. I thought that Act 1 moved a bit slower than Act 2, but it was the set-up to the finish. Even though this is based on a show that many of us have seen before, the writer and director needed to give the audience who may not have seen the show on television some background. Act 2 did not give me a chance to even take notes; it had me fully engrossed. We see Laura grow up and find her place in the prairie, a true coming of age story. We get the full sense of family from the story and the actors. I love how they wrote in a bunch of one-liners for Laura that really kept the audience laughing throughout the production.
From the production standpoint, I wanted to point out a few things. I really enjoyed the production, and was pretty impressed with the set. They used the house well throughout the production, recycling it for various numbers, but I never felt it was repetitive. The snow used on the set was realistic, and the way they simulated horses by use of leather straps and eyelets on the stage was quite convincing. The real standout from the production point, though, was the painted sky backgrounds. Mixed with superb lighting, they did a wonderful job of creating a prairie atmosphere. It was so well down that I actually made mention to my wife how I was really enjoying the lighting aspect of the show, which is telling. The Fourth of July scene was one that really stood out as well, reusing pieces of previous numbers all together to create something grand.
What would a show be without the cast? Like I said, I remember Laura as a young girl, so I had to adjust to Kara Lindsay at first. She played a fun Laura Ingalls, using humor and enthusiasm to really nail the character. Where the play called for Laura to give the audience some space, Melissa Gilbert made the transition from Laura to Ma (Caroline Ingalls) perfectly; it just needs to be noted that while Melissa was the name draw for the play, her role takes a backseat to the role of her daughter Laura. The story is really about Laura, not Ma Ingalls. Steve Blanchard is an acceptable Pa, but I felt in the number where he was playing the violin, he just did not sell the appearance of playing the instrument that well. Picky I know, but what can I say–it’s my perception. Favorite cast member? For me it was Kate Loprest playing Nellie Olesen. She just murdered the role (for the non-hip that means she was incredible). My wife and I both agreed that she played a better Nellie than Alison Margaret Arngrim on the original television series. That is not to say that Alison did not do a great job, just that Kate really shone.
Since my wife went to the play, as well, and she had some thoughts, I figured I would give her a spot on this review to talk.
After spending years of my childhood watching Little House on TV, it was difficult not to draw comparisons. While Melissa Gilbert showed her stage skills in singing and dancing, she proved unable to shed her TV persona of Laura Ingalls. She played Ma as if she was Laura all grown up with a family of her own rather than recreating the Caroline Ingalls I remember from TV. The script allowed/encouraged this, showing Ma reminisce about being rambunctious as a girl; again, it was just a break from the TV show. There were, however, some parts that captured the very essence of the series. For instance, Kate Loprest would have given Alison Margaret Arngram a run for her money as Nellie Olesen. Several scenes in the stage performance were torn straight from the small screen. I remember watching Laura develop her crush on Almanzo as he participated in the 4th of July horse race. Other parts, like when Mary loses her sight, went by so quickly in the play, when it took several episodes in the series. If watching the play without the benefit of the series, would the audience have gotten the full feeling of this moment? With this medium, the author had to choose just one aspect to focus on; it was hard not to let your mind wander to moments remembered from the series that were not represented. By the second act, I was drawn away from all the comparisons and into the story at hand, which was the touching story of Laura’s coming of age.
Let me make a couple things clear. My wife must have just loved the show, because it brought her to actual tears in the dramatic parts and had her laughing out loud in others. To get me out on a Sunday night is a feat, and Little House on the Prairie The Musical made it worth it. It was an entertaining and professionally put together production of a television show many of us grew up on. Even after finishing this review, I want to say that everyone in the cast should be proud of this production. While I did not speak on all the characters, that does not mean that they were not worthy of praise. Do not underestimate the Paper Mill Playhouse or Francesca Zabello and the cast; this show is a little slice of Broadway in New Jersey.