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Curtain Call

Back on the 'Prairie' for musical, Gilbert is all grown up

By Kristin McGrath, USA TODAY
While playing Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert got used to answering to "Half-Pint."

Now, more than 25 years after the TV show left prime time, she's getting used to answering to "Ma." Gilbert has returned to the 19th century for Little House on the Prairie: The Musical, playing Laura's mother, Caroline.

"I get very emotional in the wings, because it's such a full-circle, through-the-looking-glass-and-back-again kind of experience," says Gilbert, 45.

The musical covers the last four books of the series, incorporating such milestones as Mary's blindness and Laura's teaching career. The show wraps a month-long run Oct. 10 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and a 26-city national tour kicks off Oct. 13 in St. Paul.

After a 30-year television career, performing in a musical is a "whole 'nuther kettle of fish," Gilbert says. "I'm just glad I'm challenging myself doing something I've never done before, but doing it in somewhat familiar territory."

Willie Oleson, a role played on TV by Gilbert's brother, Jonathan, is filled by her 13-year-old son, Michael, in his stage debut. (Dad is actor/husband Bruce Boxleitner.) Although mother and son spend little time on stage together, "having him there has been a real joy."

Gilbert gets "verklempt" seeing the interplay between Kara Lindsay (as Laura) and Steve Blanchard ("Pa" Ingalls).

"I'm watching two people interpret something that was very special to me, my relationship with Michael Landon," she says. "To see it so beautifully fulfilled and defined, it's just very moving."

In June, Gilbert published her memoir, Prairie Tale, revealing something that fans of Laura's idyllic world might not have expected. About five years ago, Gilbert began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to fight a drinking problem she developed a decade ago.

At her first AA meeting in Los Angeles, a Little House fan approached her. "It finally worked when I got out of my way and said, 'OK, it's going to be what it's going to be,' " Gilbert says.

She calls sobriety a "miracle."

"For someone who grew up not having a lot of feelings all my life and then numbing them afterward with alcohol, at first it was kind of scary," she says. "Now it's a real blessing."

 

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