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Curtain Call

Simply Spotlight
By Alexander Wallick

9/23/2009
The Prairie is Alive with the Sound of Music

The prairie is alive with the sound of music at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. The Little House on the Prairie lives on, first in the stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, then in the NBC TV series and now in a stage musical. Audiences will be happy to learn that a mainstay of the television series has returned to the prairie. Yes, Melissa Gilbert has donned her petticoats again, this time playing "Ma" and is the show’s big draw. As in the Paper Mill’s The Full Monty, you will come for the featured star Melissa Gilbert, but leave not having felt cheated that it is a rehash or amalgamation of old television episodes. Besides star Melissa Gilbert, "Pa" is Steve Blanchard, formerly the Beast in another family oriented show, Beauty and the Beast on Broadway (he was excellent with Toni Braxton as Belle). The creative team is experienced, too. Librettist Rachel Sheinkin did the same for the smash hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the music and lyrics are by Rachel Portman and Donna di Novelli. Its director, Francesca Zambello, made the move from the opera world to Broadway in one of Disney’s less successful ventures, The Little Mermaid, but she has reason to be proud on Prairie’s opening night. Moreover, its choreographer, Michele Lynch, was responsible for the fine work in Lincoln Center’s The Coast of Utopia and scenic designer and co-initiator of the project, Adrianne Lobel, was at the helm of Broadway’s A Year With Frog and Toad (talent runs in the family. Ms. Lobel is the wife of actor Mark Linn-Baker).

Little House on the Prairie’s story is simple. The Ingalls family, Ma, Pa, oldest daughter Mary, middle-wild child Laura and youngest Carrie, in the late nineteenth century, moves into "Indian Territory", experiencing a plethora of harsh conditions both on their land and in their personal lives. They fight both fire and ice. They starve when the train is suspended in the winter and wheat is non-existent. Mary, stricken with illness, is left blind and needs to go to a college in Cedar Rapids to learn Braille, thus creating further financial hardship and dashing her dreams of becoming a teacher. Laura has to grow up, leave the family and stop being "the wild child" in order to earn money to pay for Mary’s schooling. While the story at times is as heartbreaking as a Hallmark movie-of-the-week, welcome comic relief is provided by the infamous Nellie Oleson.

Hence, new and old elements come together for this production of Little House on the Prairie. Most definitely, the cast is up for the challenge and should not be compared to their television counterparts. Kara Lindsay has a passing resemblance to Melissa Gilbert, but she is not imitating her. Lindsay has a beautiful voice and while she looks a little older than Laura should be, she radiates the character. The standout of the show is Melissa Gilbert. It’s a great part for her. While too beautiful to be a harried, prim, homely, prairie mother, Gilbert shines. Though she features less prominently, having relinquished the role of Laura, every line uttered, every bar of music sung and every dance step danced is performed with great gusto and done with the panache of a professional. What is more, her best performance comes at the end of Act II. Melissa Gilbert sings her only solo, Wild Child. She sings "Where did my wild child go?" and sings the song beautifully. Her voice is not just pleasant, but she actually sings beautifully and can modulate. The writers should give her another song. Gilbert and the company shine at the curtain call when they perform a great, rousing, dance number.

While looking nothing like Michael Landon, Steve Blanchard makes the part his own. He has a strong, rich baritone and his voice is powerful and moving. Blanchard is tender with Ma and the girls, rough in the elements and with the guys and mischievous with Laura. He also kicks up his heels, plays the fiddle and dances wonderfully. As the daughters, Alessa Neeck as Mary and Carly Rose Sonenclar are great. Alessa Neeck, especially, is poignant and shows the enthusiasm of Mary, both before and after the loss of her vision. Carly Rose Sonenclar is adorable as the youngest, Carrie. The main source of comic relief is Kate Loprest as Nellie Oleson. Loprest is great to watch in all of her pouty, ornery, splendor. She also turns purple with envy, and stops the show with her Act I song, "Country Girls", singing "I am discreet, notice how I walk to school with shoes upon my feet," pointing out the Ingalls’ girls’ lack of footwear. Referring to Laura, Nellie continues, "It’s sad to see how things worked out, her country roots began to sprout." Rounding out the leading players is Kevin Massey as Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s love interest, although she is cold to him at first. He also succeeds with the material he is given.

Millburn is just the second stop on a multi-city tour, which Little House on the Prairie is about to embark on after it gives its last performance at the Paper Mill on October 10th. It should do well, especially come the holidays. It is very much a show for families, as was evident by the number of children in attendance at the performance. There are moments that are a little too sentimental: a scene in the schoolroom seems plucked from The Sound of Music and the ice of winter comes pretty quickly in Act I. Additionally, it is never a good sign when the song titles or at least the tunes of a musical are not hummable or at the very least memorable. However, Larry Hochman’s jaunty orchestrations made for a very enjoyable Overture and Entr’acte. The music was also hindered by audio problems (the speakers seemed to be at the foot of the stage, making the performers seem much further away). The backdrops, which set the scenes for the show (with a few set pieces, like the frame of a wooden house) were impressive, especially the ones used to create the burning fire. Jess Goldstein’s costumes also evoked the style of the period, the Dakota Territory in the early 1880s. The same goes for Mark McCullough’s lighting designs.

Little House on the Prairie’s acting is first rate. Rachel Sheinkin’s libretto is excellent, doing what a musical’s book or libretto should do. The dialogue always felt truthful to the particular character who was reciting their dialogue. The music and lyrics were more hit and miss. Again, the material for Nellie Oleson was great, but overall, most of the lyrics were serviceable and just came and went, while others were poignant and carried the story along. Michele Lynch’s choreography is fantastic in the large dance scenes, but the slow motion segments are ineffective. However, director Francesca Zambello has done a superb job of integrating all of these elements into the production. With some tightening and tweaking, Little House on the Prairie, the Musical could become just as beloved as the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories and the 1970s television adaptation.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The Little House on the Prairie plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn

For tickets call 973.376.4343.

The Featured Players

(Laura) Kara Lindsay

(Ma) Melissa Gilbert

(Pa) Steve Blanchard

(Mary) Alessa Neeck

(Carrie) Carly Rose Sonenclar

(Almanzo) Kevin Massey

(Nellie) Kate Loprest

The Creative Team

Book by Rachel Sheinkin; Music by Rachel Portman; Lyrics by Donna di Novelli;

Initiated for the stage by Adrianne Lobel and Francesca Zambello;

Scenic Design by Adrianne Lobel; Costume Design by Jess Goldstein;

Lighting Design by Mark McCullough; Sound Design by Carl Casella and Dominic Sack;

Hair and Wig Design by Charles LaPointe; Orchestrations by Larry Hochman;

Dance & Incidental Music Arranged by Michael E. Dansicker;

Music Director/Conductor: Richard Carsey

Mark S. Hoebee Artistic Director and Mark W. Jones Executive Director

Photo: Dancing up a storm on the prairie!" From left to right, Kara Lindsay as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Melissa Gilbert as "Ma" and Steve Blanchard as "Pa"

Alexander Wallick is a native of Short Hills, New Jersey and graduated from Millburn High School. While he is a junior majoring in Political Science at Drew University in Madison, theatre is his passion. Along with attending nearly one hundred shows from Broadway to the West End, he has studied acting and playwrighting at New Jersey’s state theatre, the Paper Mill Playhouse, for four years. He also serves as the chief theatre critic for The Acorn, the Drew University newspaper. He is always looking for the next great show.



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