A sentimental journey to Little House

It's a play—you can't turn the channel: Melissa Gilbert (center) and the cast of Little House
Michal Daniel

Inevitably, some shows lug the baggage of an audience's decades-long attachment to their subject matter. They are shows that a generation forever links in its heart-mind matrix to the emotions and trials of childhood. Little House on the Prairie is undeniably one of those endeavors, though in the spirit of full disclosure I should note that, as a pup in the '70s, my eyes were glued to Space: 1999 and Battlestar Galactica. And never, not once, have I viewed Michael Landon as a father figure.

Which admittedly sets me apart from a sizable portion of the audience that is snapping up Little House tickets in record numbers, and who gave the show a rousing ovation on opening night. To these eyes and ears (and hearts), this new musical is polished, boasts moments of charm, and is so transparently bound by Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels (and, yes, the NBC series) that any hope of surprise or real invention fades away amid dot-to-dot storytelling, tasteful but ultimately unexceptional tunes, and a staging that, while undeniably accomplished and elegant, doesn't distinguish itself as essential or anything more than the sum of its parts.

Rachel Sheinkin's book outlines the early story with merciful economy. Pa (Steve Blanchard) bursts in all agog after learning that the government is giving away homesteads to folks willing to tough it out for five years on the prairie. Hellion daughter Laura (Kara Lindsay) is gung ho, while Ma (Melissa Gilbert, arriving with so much freight that her very appearance onstage elicited applause) requires more convincing. But not all that much more.

Everyone seems to be striving to convey the heavy historical realities of the Homestead Act period in which Little House is set. The first lyric of the show (by Donna di Novelli; Rachel Portman provides the music) is unambiguously declarative: "Free land." In a later tune, Pa tells the story of the "Land Office Brawl" in which he staked his claim on what would become the Ingalls spread. History, then, is laid out in familiar terms of ownership and money, and matters of the heart are intertwined with material dictates (there is more than one reason why this is a quintessentially American story).

It doesn't stop there. Blanchard and Gilbert later tackle "Almost Wheat," about the tantalizing prospects of producing a cash crop (Blanchard, in presence and voice, gives the impression of a performer whom fate has landed in precisely the right place). And after sister Mary (Jenn Gambatese) is left sightless following a fever, Laura takes on a teaching gig to earn money to send her to a school for the blind.

So, warm and fuzzy things aren't, but eventually the show settles into its niche as a contemporary musical, and here's where the heartbeat slows. Portman's compositions, while avoiding grab-your-throat manipulation, wash by with a sort of American idiomatic inevitability. And the romance between Laura and the amorously unshakeable Almanzo (Kevin Massey, who supplies charm and pipes but at times seems to be in another show entirely, lacking the hard-bitten pioneer charisma his squire supposedly exudes) feels tacked-on rather than illuminating.

Finally Ma delivers a reasonably touching "Wild Child" to Laura, a mother's exhortation to her daughter to rekindle the rebellious spirit of youth. Gilbert is game and, while vocally about average, supplies all kinds of emotional texture. (It's a bit uncomfortable to realize that part of the lump in our throat comes from having watched a celebrity grow up before our eyes—but still, it's a lovely, hopeful moment.)

In the end, though, one gets a queasy sense of having witnessed a very accomplished technical exercise that sags under the weight of expectation and multiple agendas (when Pa starts talking about his reservations, no pun intended, about grabbing land from Native Americans, you want to hand him a pick so that he might dig a bit deeper). I don't know whether it will matter much to those for whom this story is soul poetry. Maybe it shouldn't. But looking in from the outside, the results seem dismayingly disposable. 

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