Fresh, fun and relatively cheap to produce, this is one adaptation of children’s material that won’t rot the kids’ brain cells or have their parents banging their heads on the seats to stay awake. A youthful creative team narrows the story focus and gets right to the emotional heart of Patricia MacLachlan’s award-winning novel, set in the 1800s, about two motherless children struggling to adjust to the “peculiar” mail-order bride their father has imported from her village in Maine to their farm on the Kansas prairie. (The musical is unrelated to the 1991 Glenn Close telepic.)
Julia Jordan’s book for the show is a model of streamlined plotting. With no beating around the bush, she quickly establishes that gawky, tomboyish Sarah (Becca Ayers) would be a misfit in any social setting; that farmer Jacob (Herndon Lackey) is still mourning his dead wife and only wants a nanny for his children; that daughter Anna (Kate Wetherhead) won’t let anyone share her turf; that little Caleb (John Lloyd Young) needs attention; and that all of them are in desperate need of the warmth and love of a real home life. Joe Calarco’s direction advances the story with brisk efficiency, depending on the flexible settings to move the action with wit and imagination and trusting the articulate score to supply the character nuances.
Laurence O’Keefe’s bright tunes get much of their mileage from counterpoint, giving the characters the opportunity (as in “The Dinner Song”) to sing-through entire scenes as an ensemble, while still allowing them their individual voices. As it works out, this means plucky for Sarah, mournful for Jacob, feisty for Anna, sad for Caleb and humorously bossy for the two-performer chorus (played by Kenneth Boys and Debra Wiseman) of all their friends and relatives. But the musical themes are so supple — and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics so surprisingly incisive and touching — that no one is confined to stereotype. In song after song, one character or another will lean forward to share a rebellious thought or reveal a secret longing. This is subtle stuff for a kid’s show.
For the most part, the nimble cast is up to this multilevel role-playing (Herndon Lackey, however, would do well to unbend a little from Jacob’s stoic posture), and the ensemble work is well nigh flawless. Just the same, Becca Ayers is hard to miss as Sarah. This big-boned blond is tall and strapping, all right, although she’s about as “plain” as a Victoria’s Secret model. But she has such an affinity for the tomboyish Sarah (and enough conviction as an actress to pull it off) that we’ll humor her.
Despite her more diminutive size, Kate Wetherhead is even more of a knockout as the young, mixed-up Anna. She’s got a strong, go-straight-to-Broadway voice on her, this one, and in one pivotal book scene, in which Sarah breaks down Anna’s defenses by taking her swimming in a cow pond, she doesn’t need a single musical note to convey the complex psychology of a rebellious adolescent letting go of the chip on her shoulder.
With or without its strong cast, this is one sturdy show that should keep regional theaters happy for a long time.