Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****
Although I'm a pretty emotional person, there have only been a few times over the past 18 months when something in a play or musical has reduced me to tears. Well, it happened again one week ago today, when I saw the new musical Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
There's a point near the end of Act I, after a bout of scarlet fever has left Mary Ingalls blind, when her younger sister Laura sings to her, "I'll be your eyes." It's such a moving scene, a beautiful duet between Kara Lindsay's Laura and Jenn Gambatese's Mary. For me, it was the most memorable part of lyricist Donna Di Novelli and composer Rachel Portman's score, and I was crying pretty much through the whole song.
In fact, it was so powerful, I was certain that "I'll be your eyes" would mark the end of Act I. But the show went on for what seemed like another half hour. As the mood on the McGuire Proscenium Stage became a more lighthearted one, I think some of the impact of that moment passed by a bit too quickly.
That kind of jarring transition sums up how I felt about Little House on the Prairie - there was lots to like, some truly soaring moments and terrific performances. But at the same time, there were a few things about the musical that just struck me as well, a bit out of place. (Although it's been awhile since I've read all the books so for all I know, they may be true to life.)
Beginning in 1932 with Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote nine books about her childhood, describing her family's travels across the Midwest, what it was like to be a girl in the 1870s and 1880s, her career as a schoolteacher and her marriage to Almanzo Wilder.
The musical covers roughly the events of the middle books, beginning with By the Shores of Silver Lake, when Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their four daughters, including 12-year-old Laura, leave Walnut Grove, Minnesota, for a homestead in the Dakota Territory.
In adapting the work for the stage, book writer Rachel Sheinkin has tinkered a bit with the specifics of Wilder's life. For example, in the books, Mary is stricken with scarlet fever and becomes blind in Minnesota, before the family travels to the Dakotas. And there are only three Ingalls girls in the musical: Mary, Laura and Carrie. Baby Grace has been written out entirely.
Now, I loved Sheinkin's previous book of a musical, for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Sheinkin, who won a Tony award, created a wonderful, quirky, distinct group of adolescents. Their stories were funny and moving and they seemed very true to life. So I was really curious to see how she would approach a group of 19th century adolescents.
In Little House on the Prairie, I don't think she's always successful in capturing the essence of Laura's character. Some things just struck me as out of place, a little too 21st century. While some of the dialog was taken right from the books, other lines seemed a little too modern. I think Sheinkin stumbles a bit in trying to capture a 19th-century sensibility.
For example, there's a scene in a schoolhouse when Laura's nemesis Nellie Oleson, a suitably snobbish Sara Jean Ford, makes fun of the Ingalls girls because they're barefoot and they don't have the proper slates to write on. Coming to her sister Carrie's defense, Laura acts up in a way that was so disruptive, it didn't quite seem believable.
First, I simply don't believe that Caroline Ingalls, who, after all, had been a teacher, would have sent her daughters to school without shoes and without the proper supplies. While Laura was high-spirited and headstrong at times, she was at heart a good girl, well brought up, and would never have been that obnoxious and bratty to an authority figure like a teacher.
There's another song, where the homesteaders, going through a difficult winter, sing "Uncle Sam, Where are you?" While I'm glad that the musical doesn't sugarcoat things, I just don't believe that 19th century homesteaders expected a government bailout.
But despite those qualms, there are lots of things Little House on the Prairie, directed by Francesca Zambello, does right - including depicting the harshness and deprivation and isolation of life in the Dakota Territory.
There's a scene in the beginning of the musical when all of the wagons are filled with pioneers heading west, aided by Adrianne Lobel's imaginative set design. You get a great sense of who they were, how they came from different backgrounds - the wagon train includes European immigrants and African-Americans - but they set off with the same great hopes and dreams. (I did chuckle, though, at a bit of Michele Lynch's choreography in that scene that reminded me of Fiddler on the Roof.)
And Kara Lindsay is so appealing, with a strong, soaring voice. Her Laura is spunky and daring, with an independent streak. I especially loved Lindsay's performance in Act II. At that point, the pigtails are gone and she's transformed into a young woman who becomes a teacher in an even more isolated town, to earn money to help send Mary to a college for the blind.
Even though she's grown up, with more adult responsibilities, Laura is still feisty, still a risk-taker, still an independent-minded person right up until the end of the musical. We see her at first rebuffing and then falling in love with Almanzo, played by a very boyish and charming and confident Kevin Massey. I liked the scene between the two of them in Almanzo's wagon, when Laura takes over the reins and wants to drive the horses as fast as they can go.
The rest of the cast is great, too. Maeve Moynihan is sweet as Carrie, Gambatese's more mature and focused Mary provides a nice counterpoint to Laura's impetuousness in Act I. And I loved Steve Blanchard's strong, forceful Pa. You can definitely tell that Laura gets some of her spunk from him. As Ma, I thought Melissa Gilbert hit the right tone but didn't have quite the same presence as some of the other performers, and her voice seemed a bit thin in her big song, "Wild Child." Still, like everyone else, I remember watching her as television's absolutely adorable Laura, aka "half-pint," and it was very cool to see her on stage.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books to preserve the stories of her childhood, to show succeeding generations how much America had changed in her lifetime. And the musical does a good job of portraying what the lives of those pioneers were like. But what had the most impact on me were the things that are timeless - Laura's adventurous spirit and independence, her devotion to her family and to a sibling who needed her.