Laura Ingalls Wilder’s long life on the frontier certainly provided her with plenty of storytelling fodder – enough, at least for eleven novels and ten television seasons. And yet somehow, when many of the early highlights are compressed into one piece, as they are in Little House on the Prairie – The Musical,” currently playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse, the work feels oddly lacking. It is likely that the creative team of this family-friendly musical relies too heavily on fans of the long-running television incarnation, which starred Michael Landon as Pa Ingalls and then-child star Melissa Gilbert as protagonist Laura, to be the chief audience. Well, Gilbert may be all grown up, but she’s still attached to the Prairie. Now, she plays Ma Ingalls, a much slighter role, but one that nonetheless is designed to draw in nostalgists.
I say this because the show does very little to stand on its own. Despite a long out-of-town tryout process – Prairie has already played the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and has replaced much of its original book and score – the show still plays as though it is in draft form. Rachel Sheinkin replaced Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley, the original scribe who first helped shape the musical, and perhaps some of her narrative grace notes went with her. (Donna di Novelli provides the lyrics.) The current result plays mostly as a checklist of boldface events from the early novels.
I say “current” because I firmly believe that Prairie still has plenty of room to grow. It certainly isn’t lacking in talent, particularly in the form of Kara Lindsay in the leading role of Laura, a precocious young tomboy. Over the course of the show, Laura learns to mind her parents and schoolteachers, support her family when older sister Mary loses her sight, make amends with nemesis Nellie Oleson, feels the joy of breaking through to schoolhouse pupils, and even finds a love of her own (there’s little mystery as to who the lucky guy might be when the talented Kevin Massey first appears as Almanzo Wilder.) Lindsay, who is also a terrific singer, ably plays beneath her real age, and gradually bridges Laura’s maturation in ways the episodic script doesn’t provide for her.
But what the show cannot do is delve into the culture of the lifestyle it sets out to portray. Director Francesa Zambello erred in similar fashion with her last show, the musical adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Both shows impress as spectacles, but offer less beneath the surface. The technical elements are there, but they lack inspiration. Similarly, Michele Lynch choreographs several professional ensemble numbers, but they feel rote and do little to enhance the story.
As a result, one never feels the hardship of prairie life, even as a raging fire destroys the Ingalls’ wheat prospects, nor does the viewer get the chance to fully grasp the details of the Homestead Act that grants the Wilders and the other settlers their right to sojourn to the unsettled Dakota territory in the first place. Instead, the audience is stuck watching them from afar, as events befall the Wilders in too fast and frequent a manner. The view gets a little better in Prairie’s slightly protracted second act, when Laura comes into her own as both teacher and woman; one hopes that this storytelling sensibility will work its way into more of the show as it continues its run.
Nonetheless, Alessa Neeck and Carly Rose Sonenclar hold their own with the material as Laura’s sisters, and Loprest acquits herself well as the mischievous Nellie. Steve Blanchard is a solid Pa Ingalls. In fact, the weakest link in this musical chain is actually Gilbert herself. The actress handles her dialogue with the ease of a pro, and proves she can dance with the best of them during the show’s curtain call, but her talk-singing though the show’s eleventh-hour number, “Wild Child,” leaves a bit to be desired.
Still, there is nothing in Prairie that cannot be improved with some effort. The Ingalls’ journey is one worth taking, and hopefully, one that will continue to improve in time.