photo courtesy Associated Press
Feeling like a half-pint, seeing Guthrie’s Little House on the Prairie with my Pa, nostalgia was sure to abound. "Don’t be such a Nellie," he’d chastise me as a young girl whenever I took on the role of brazen tattle-teller. Tonight, though, a comparison to Nellie would be no disparagement. Sara Jean Ford is bursting from her petticoat’s seams with snotty delight at every turn. A master of the very-thinly-veiled backhanded compliment, Nellie wins the audience with her perky, self-serving ways.
In a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-kind of way, Little House is a female force. The musical’s creative crew is comprised entirely of women. And among the cast, the Ingalls ladies prove a close bunch, if often due to necessity of keeping warm on the bitter plain. That’s not to say Little House doesn’t offer up something for those men in the audience. Scenes showcasing pioneers’ hardships will resonate with any man balancing the lure of adventure with responsibilities of family and home life. Charles "Pa" Ingalls is a proud man seeking not fortune, but sustenance. Steve Blanchard, as Charles, raises his fist and curses the sky more than once. But he is the foundation upon which the family can rest it’s weary, frontier blues; with a pluck of his fiddle, the group is enlivened and ready to face yet another disaster. The true backbone of the family, what Pa says, goes.
Laura, though, has itchy feet and can’t figure out just where they should take her. At one point she sums up her distaste for "urban" life, as opposed to the wide-open yonder, by lamenting, "Town feels like sore on the prairie." (Similar to sentiments expressed by many concerning the new Twins’ stadium?) Depicting this "sore" of a town, set designers used minimal, suggestive pieces, rather than full-blown, cumbersome ones. This evoked a simple feel that rang true to the Little House book series, and therefore the times themselves. The use of sound often made-up for what couldn’t be shown on stage: wind storms, snow storms, ravaging crop fires, and any number of climatic maladies.
"She can do a cartwheel," Dad leans over and points out during one of Laura’s giddy, grateful-for-just-being-alive outbursts. The frequent reminders of my childhood deficit of coordination never cease. Kara Lindsay plays Laura as the sassy, but earnest, and always likeable character we grew to love in both the novels and television series. We get to watch Laura transform from a tomboyish young girl to a tomboyish young woman in the course of the two acts. Her dialogue and delivery are at times hokey, but all in keeping with the spirit of the lore. This is hardly an issue being that actual spoken lines are few, what with a total of thirty songs performed throughout the play. Several of these songs feature Lindsay soloing; a polished, mature voice of obvious experience.
Melissa Gilbert, television’s Laura, plays Ma in the humble way we always remember her character. Gilbert’s mainstream stardom never once overshadows scenes in which she isn’t meant to be the star. However, when the script calls for her to step into the focus, it appears comfortably easy. Her singing voice doesn’t come through quite as easily as it does for some of the others, but is certainly pleasant. Gilbert seems truly appreciative of the audience, her cast mates, the whole thing. It must feel a true "coming full circle"; playing TV’s half-pint for nine years, then watching a new half-pint cartwheel across the stage while looking on as matriarch.
The other Ingalls girls are represented by local Maeve Moynihan (Carrie) and Jenn Gambatese (Mary). With Carrie, we don’t see much, if any, of a character arc. We note the passage of time as she goes from pig-tailed and pigeon-toed to, not. Mary plays a more prominent role as Laura’s big sister who is unexpectedly struck blind by Scarlet fever. Mary is always so good, as we are reminded in Laura’s song, "Good," performed once in each act. We don’t dislike her for a second, though. Her goodness is different than Nellie’s in that it is sincere. She’d rather tell a white lie than get a sister in trouble needlessly. She worries it’s selfish to pray for good crops so the family will earn enough money to send her to college. To this, Laura smartly replies that there would be no harm in praying for good weather over at the neighbors’, as it’ll surely provide the Ingalls’ land with good weather, too. We see Laura’s keen interest in richly describing her surroundings flourish, at first to help her blind sister picture the landscape, and further as her love for reading and writing blooms.
This literary inclination, though, is not inherent in Laura. She takes on a teaching job, which she apparently does quite poorly. A quick pep talk from Ma refocuses our stubborn Laura, and her pupils are now angelic geniuses. As a former teacher, I found this a bit silly, or maybe I was coveting her skill set. Nonetheless, some time lapsing is necessary. If we had to witness just how many times Clarence had to be alternately praised/ ignored/ coddled/ tough-loved — we’d lose interest in the reality of it all. Little House isn’t meant to depict the actual, historical reality of pioneering families, but succeeds at encapsulating it, making it accessible, relatable, even laughable. When they square-dance, it actually seems enjoyable, unlike when you did it in gym class. Little House makes you want to saddle up to the hearth with your kin, even in this summer heat.