Written by Rachel Sheinkin, based on the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Music by Rachel Portman
Lyrics by Donna Di Novelli
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Choreographed by Michele Lynch
Musical direction by Kevin Stites
Performed by Melissa Gilbert, Steve Blanchard, Kara Lindsay, Kate Loprest, Kevin Massey, Alessa Neeck, Carly Rose Sonenclar.
Guthrie Theater Production/Mirvish
Canon Theatre, Toronto
January 27 to February 28, 2010
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Melissa Gilbert as “Ma”
Little House is Great Family Show
The new musical, Little House on the Prairie, is a cross between two old favourite musicals: Anne of Green Gables and Oklahoma!
If you like Anne’s perkiness, then you’ll love Laura’s spunk. If you like the settlers’ tenacity in Oklahoma!, then you’ll love the Ingalls family’s triumph over tribulations.
An American touring company of Little House on the Prairie ~ The Musical, originating in Minneapolis, has been brought to Toronto’s Canon Theatre by the Mirvishes. The new musical follows the series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, rather than the long-running TV show, if memory serves. However, the television series is well represented, with Melissa Gilbert, who starred in the series as Laura, playing the role of Ma in the musical. Gilbert received a warm round of applause when she stepped on the stage.
The story traces the Ingalls family, Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura and Carrie, as they settle a tract of land near DeSmet, Dakota Territory, in the 1800s. The Ingalls girls find it difficult to fit in at the country school, and Laura’s nemesis, Nellie Oleson, scorns them. Life is rough – winters are harsh, prairie fires destroy the wheat crop, and scarlet fever leaves Mary blind. In order to pay tuition for Mary to attend a college for the blind, Laura at age 15 takes a job teaching school at the Brewster settlement. She struggles with living with away from home in an unwelcoming household. But Laura manages to earn enough to get Mary off to school, where she eventually receives a scholarship. With the requisite happy ending, Laura and the young farmer with the strange first name, Almanzo Wilder, marry and make their home on the prairie.
Melissa Gilbert as Ma may be the drawing card to introduce this new musical, but unfortunately she is not a singer. She and the director have recognized that fact: her performance is credible with simple tunes and very few solo parts. It is a great novelty to see her now at age 46 taking on the role of mother. Also interesting to note, I believe that one of the young schoolboys in the show, Michael Boxleitner is Melissa Gilbert’s son.
Steve Blanchard as Pa symbolizes the pioneer spirit well and has a beautiful voice. His rendition of the song The Prairie Moves early in the show is a touching account of his love of the land.
Kara Lindsay as Laura is excellent in portraying the energetic little tomboy who makes the transition to the responsible young woman. Lindsay is one of those actors who commands the stage with her sparkling eyes. Alessa Neeck is good as Mary and handles the difficult task of being blind very well. The two young women both have powerful singing voices and harmonize well in the poignant song I’ll Be Your Eyes.
Kate Loprest provides the comic relief as Nellie Oleson, complete with the head full of blonde ringlets. Kevin Massey as Almanzo has a soaring tenor voice and is endearing in his efforts to befriend Laura. Little Carly Rose Sonenclar at age 10 handles the role of Carrie well, another item on her already impressive list of credits.
As with many touring shows, the set is simple: two walls are rolled out to represent the little house. The colours of sunsets and clouds in the big sky create a prairie feel. Representing horse drawn wagons and sleighs is always a challenge on stage. In this case, the actors held long reins fastened to the stage, as they jumped or bounced about to simulate the ride – by the end of the show, the reins seem overdone.
The choreography in the Fourth of July celebration was out of synch and needed tightening while the dancers seemed tired the night I was there. But they redeemed themselves in the curtain call where they really seemed to be having fun.
Little House on the Prairie ~ The Musical will become very popular with high schools and community theatre as it will support a large cast. In this production there were 24 on stage. The creators have included all the ingredients of the old favourite musicals: the horse race scene is reminiscent of the joust in Camelot, the Fourth of July celebration is similar to the barn raising in Oklahoma! It is a great family show, and will be enjoyed by all ages, especially those who liked reading the Little House books.
For tickets, call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or go to www.mirvish.com