Saturday, January 27, 2024

"Little House on the Prairie" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

As a fan of all things Little House on the Prairie and Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was excited to see the musical Little House on the Prairie on Lakeshore Players Theatre's ambitious 2023-2024 season. I grew up watching the TV show and reading the books, and as an adult I've read every book I could find about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and visited most of the historic sights. As a descendent of 19th Century immigrants who came to Minnesota to make a better life for their family (i.e., me), Laura's story feels like my story. But as an adult, I recognize that it's only one side of the story, and that the story of the indigenous people of this land, who were displaced by the US government so that my ancestors could make a new life here, is also an important one to tell. Laura's story and legacy are complicated,* but I still love Little House for the nostalgia, and the comforting message of family, home, togetherness, and respect for nature. I hadn't seen the musical in almost 15 years, and it turns out it's not as strong of a piece of musical theater as I remembered or hoped it was. But it's still lots of fun for Little House fans, and Lakeshore Players has put together a charming production, with a large and talented cast and beautiful design. You can see it at Hanifl Performing Arts Center in White Bear Lake through February 10 (and for something different, check out an encore performance of Lakeshore's fantastic regional premiere of the smart, funny, inspiring play What the Constitution Means to Me on January 29 and 30).

The Little House on the Prairie musical premiered at the Guthrie Theater in 2008 (two years before I started writing this blog, so my memories of it are slim), starring the TV Laura, Melissa Gilbert, as Ma (hence the simple and not very rangey song that Ma sings). With book by Rachel Sheinkin (who won a Tony for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), music by Academy Award-winning composer Rachel Portman, and lyrics by opera and musical theater librettist Donna DiNovelli, the musical pulls from several of the Little House books that take place in De Smet SD, when Laura was a teenager. Those of us familiar with Laura's story will recognize that some events are told out of order, locations changed, and characters merged, but Laura did that with her own story when writing the children's novels. But it sort of feels like a fast and random collection of stories, some of which don't get their due. We see the Ingalls family move to South Dakota, Pa stake a claim on the land, the girls start school and immediately get in trouble, followed in quick succession by a bitterly cold and snowy winter, Mary's blindness, the 4th of July picnic, and a prairie fire, and that's all before intermission! The second act settles into the story of Laura teaching at a small school in the nearby Brewster settlement to earn money for Mary to attend a school for the blind, and her romance with Almanzo, who volunteers to drive to the settlement and bring her home for the weekend. The romance is sweet, but ending the show with a wedding "happily ever after" feels cliche, and those of us who know Laura's story know there were plenty of hard times ahead. I think the musical could have been more successful if it had focused on fewer events and delved more deeply into them, and had a less Hollywood/Broadway ending.

Despite some quibbles with the piece as written, I think Lakeshore did a wonderful job with what they had to work with. Kristin N. Fox directs the large and talented cast (including several enthusiastic child actors), keeping the story moving from scene to scene. Kate Piering is a bundle of energy as Laura, embodying her wild and free spirit. Bridget Benson is every bit the sweet and good older sister Mary, and the Laura/Mary duet "I'll Be Your Eyes" is a highlight. Lydia Ellwell completes the trio of sisters as the adorable Carrie, and Nicole Wood and James Lane round out the family as Ma and Pa, the latter having some lovely moments with Laura. Other highlights in the cast include Carter Hoffer as Laura's beau Almanzo, and Malea Hanson, who goes full Nellie Oleson as Laura's frenemy, her solo numbers a comic delight. As the original Nellie Alison Arngrim said when I saw her perform years ago, the Laura/Nellie relationship is very reminiscent of Elphaba/Glinda (or maybe Laura and Nellie were the original Elphaba and Glinda!). 

I really enjoyed the score, which is evocative of that nostalgic wide open prairie feeling, and includes some lovely ballads and rousing Americana songs. The large group numbers are well staged, with some fun choreography (by Ruby Carlson). I loved the placement of the six-piece band (led by Jack Johnston on keyboard) at the back of the stage behind a painted border of waving grass, with the pale blue of the prairie sky behind them. The lighting design also contributes to the wide open prairie feeling, and three large rotating set pieces of wooden frames are cleverly arranged to create various settings, from inside and outside the Ingalls home, to the Oleson's store, to the small Brewster cabin. Characters are dressed in the prairie dresses and bonnets you would expect from any Little House homage. (Lighting design by Alyssa Kraft-Campbell, production design by Brandt Roberts, costume design by Megan Kent.)

I'm glad I had the chance to see the Little House on the Prairie musical again, and spend some time with Laura and the Ingalls family. There were quite a few children at the performance I attended (despite the post-10pm ending time), and while it might be a bit too much for the very little ones, if you have a Little House fan in your house (whether they're 10 or 50), take them to Lakeshore Players for this sweet and faithful show.

*I highly recommend the podcast Wilder for a detailed look at Little House on the Prairie in all its complexities.