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April 15, 2010
Theater review: 'Little House' shows pioneer spirit

By Marcus Crowder

There's plenty of plucky American pioneering spirit - together with waves of old-fashioned sentiment - in the national touring production of "Little House on the Prairie, The Musical."

The musical, at the Community Center Theater, was developed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and has gone from its run there to this national tour, with a New York production under consideration.

Based on the enduring series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this production features Melissa Gilbert, who came to popular prominence from 1974-1983, starring in a television series sourcing the same material. Gilbert played Laura on television, but here she has appropriately moved on to play Ma, with the bright Kara Lindsay taking the central Laura role.

The musical's story airbrushes Laura's teen years, at first focusing on her family's homesteading in DeSmet, S.D., and then the courtship of Almanzo Wilder, who of course eventually becomes her husband. The musical's creative team, book by Rachel Sheinkin with music by Rachel Portman and lyrics by Donna Di Novelli, fashion an often-affecting, though limited narrative.

The musical's dynamics feature the homesteaders dealing with unyielding elements including a brutal winter and Laura's competition with Nellie Oleson. While Kate Loprest gives Nellie a real spark, the weak character occupies too much prominence in the thin story.

Director Francesca Zambello smartly distracts from the flat storytelling with stylized tableaux and an attractive, minimalist visual approach. Portman, who has mainly done film scores, writes some beautifully evocative music here, but Di Novelli's lyrics are mostly cumbersome and trite, minimizing the songs. Only on the duet "Faster," between Kevin Massey's determined Almanzo and Lindsay's Laura, do we get a song that really reaches inside the characters.

Still, the heart of the story, the selflessness of the Ingalls family and the remarkable resilience of the settlers have an undeniable strength. Steve Blanchard as Pa, Alessa Neeck as Laura's older sister Mary, and Anastasia Korbal as younger sister Carrie form the tightknit family.

Though Gilbert's voice didn't really pack much strength or assurance, she still delivered the musical's pivotal number "Wild Child" with an emotional clarity that really defines this production.

Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.

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