Friday, April 09, 2010

review of *Little House on the Prairie: The Musical*

at the INB Center through Sunday, April 11

Well, it’s better than the TV show. Remember how Michael Landon would do that little chin-dip and grin, signifying that tonight’s moral lesson had been learned?
Director Francesca Zambello’s production of the Little House musical mostly avoids that kind of preachment, with comic snipes undercutting most of the saccharine moments. (When the Ingalls family first gapes at all their new treeless and grassy acreage, the littlest daughter deadpans, “There’s nothing there.”) Even better, Zambello practically conducts a clinic in imaginative staging, instant scene changes and the creation of sudden crowd energy onstage.

While the headliners are Steven Blanchard as Pa Ingalls (who’s macho and kind all at once, bestriding his homestead in a variety of dirtied boots) and Melissa Gilbert as Ma (absent for the Spokane shows due to minor back surgery) — and while Gilbert’s understudy replacement, Meredith Inglesby, brings grace and a strong voice to the role — the fact is that Ma isn’t that big a role. (The fact that the roles usually played by Inglesby, who is Blanchard’s real-life wife, include a schoolmarm and a seriously depressed housewife stuck on a treeless, frozen prairie suggests the kind of range that Inglesby has. The show holds a moment after Ma’s first entrance, anticipating the applause that no doubt usually greets Gilbert’s first entrance; but Spokane theatergoers shouldn’t avoid this affecting and imaginative show just because Gilbert’s not appearing in it.)

The real standouts in this production, however, are the three young actors who play the central coming-of-age role, Laura; Laura’s beau and eventual husband, Almanzo Wilder; and Laura’s conceited rival, Nellie Oleson.
As Laura, Kara Lindsay is hampered by an opening solo, “Thunder,” that’s meant to express the eventual author’s youthful exuberance and wanderlust — but which doesn’t have as much energy as the assembly of hopeful homesteaders in the following number, “Up Ahead.” For comic scenes, Lindsay projects a squeaky-mischievous voice that complements her impish charm.
It isn’t the ring curls, knee dips and proferred wrists that define Kate Loprest’s coquettish and haughty Nellie. Loprest has the show’s most expressive soprano voice and best comedic gestures. In “Without an Enemy,” a second-act bedroom number, Loprest slumps and jumps and hops all over her bed, all in contrast to Laura, working by candlelight behind a scrim, in darkness. And Loprest can wring Lucille Ball comedy out of simply climbing up and over a wooden fence, with hilarious effect.
As Laura’s love interest, Almanzo, Kevin Massey has the athleticism that explains why he got to understudy Tarzan in the Disney musical on Broadway. In “Faster,” Zambello directs Massey and Lindsay to use a simple device — reins hooked to the stage floor, coordinated with riding-in-a-buggy movements that transmute into a kind of love duet that’s tentative, then feisty. Throughout, Massey has a jaunty confidence that marks him as an able horseman.

Blanchard’s best moment, meanwhile, arrives early, in a tribute to natural beauty (“The Prairie Moves”), sung against a starry background.

Zambello, who has extensive experience in directing opera, repeatedly appeals to the audience’s imagination: We are there in constructing all those clapboard houses. It’s like wish fulfillment: Imagine a schoolhouse, a snowed-in shack, a dusty horse race … and suddenly it’s there, with viewers picking up just enough clues to share in the vision.
Certainly her staging outweighs Rachel Portman’s music: Only one or two of the show’s tunes linger in the mind.

The “I’ll Be Your Eyes” sequence that closes Act One, moreover, reverts to the sentimental excesses of the TV show. Laura’s sister Mary (Alessa Neeck) undergoes a misfortune, and Laura’s character suddenly goes in for self-sacrifice and acting “Good” in ways that she had specifically repudiated just minutes before.

The show’s co-originator with Zambello back at the Guthrie in Minneapolis in July 2008, Adrianne Lobel, keeps her scenic design’s cyc alive with a succession of cloud formations and prairie sunsets; Mark McCullough’s lighting brought a high-noon glare to the upbeat townspeople scenes while remaining suitably gloomy for all the adversity that the Ingalls family confronts.
Jess Goldstein’s costume designs kept tomboy Laura in drab prairie homespuns while at one point bedecking her nemesis, that snooty Oleson girl, in a flashy pink gown complete with wispy parasol.
The dance designs of Michael Dansicker and Eric Sean Fogel are at their most inventive in “Fire in the Kitchen,” when the Ingalls family’s hand-rubbing and foot-stomping morph into a jig: double-clap, lift your skirts, waggle heads, go arm-in-arm.
Richard Carsey’s orchestra contributed, among many other effects, an ominous clarinet for the onset of sickness and a lively fiddle for the family’s happier moments.

… to be continued …

[ More notes:  we are blind, too; horse race; doesn’t shy from adversity; two shovels; realistic/artificed tension in step-out; Restless Heart needless and Wild Child not wild; basic emotions, primal; resentment vs. govt.; difficulty of monthly payments; windy day depressing; vogues and cackles; horses > master ]



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