Thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels, not to mention the longrunning TV series they spawned, there are few literary legacies more beloved than that of “Little House on the Prairie,” the epic of American homestead life seen through the eyes of a defiant young girl who grows into love and young adulthood. That means the original musical world-premiering in Minneapolis at the Guthrie and based on segments of the tale, comes with the particular brand of expectation engendered by such widespread affection.
The strain is apparent. Hewing faithfully to Wilder’s stories, picking tales that focus on the latter stages of the life of protagonist Laura (Kara Lindsay), the musical ultimately feels hamstrung by the weight of its own iconography. And while its components are delivered with near-seamless professionalism, by the end it’s hard to imagine the show carving out a distinctive space in the contemporary musical landscape.
Donna di Novelli’s lyrics and Rachel Portman’s music begin with promise. Several numbers are presented as song fragments that vanish and then re-emerge with the rising action. The titles — “Endless Sky,” “Dirt Poor” — suggest a mythic take on 19th century American expansion, expressed in yearning optimism.
The Ingalls family, propelled onto the vastness of the prairie like so many astronauts blasted into space, earns our sympathy. In addition to Lindsay’s Laura, there’s a very capable Mary (Jenn Gambatese) and a wide-eyed Carrie (Maeve Moynihan). Steve Blanchard as Pa combines a restless, at-times-volcanic temper with a rich croon that ably evokes a prairie wind.
Melissa Gilbert, tunneling through time as a one-time Laura and now playing Ma, carries her iconic baggage with a good deal of grace (she isn’t asked to sing much, and when she does, in “Wild Child,” she story-sings to Lindsay to touching effect, if without great technical skill).
Yet, ultimately, we have to ask whether what we’re seeing bridges the elusive gap between the familiar and the illuminating. Director Francesca Zambello (“The Little Mermaid”) has clearly envisioned a show that favors heart over glitz — there’s no set to speak of, only projections that conjure wide-open plains and skies, with house frames wheeled in when domestic scenes require it. But it’s hard to find the pulse amid so many conventional elements supplied with perfunctory ease.
Portman’s music, performed by an 11-piece hidden orchestra, doesn’t provide much in the way of a signature tune to elevate the proceedings, though the strange “Teach the Wind,” sung by Mary Jo Mecca as Mrs. Brewster, gives a hint at the dark and unexpected corners this endeavor might have explored.
And Blanchard almost saves the day with his delivery of “The Prairie Moves,” a lilting ode to open spaces that summons the sense of eternal possibility that, to some degree, still infuses the American consciousness.
Fans of Laura’s nemesis Nellie Oleson (Sara Jean Ford) are amply rewarded with a tart, insecure characterization. In the first act, “Country Girls” conveys the schoolhouse in-crowd disdain among the popular girls for the Ingalls lasses, and Ford scores on the second-act “Without an Enemy,” an ode to the particular ennui Nellie feels when Laura leaves town to earn money as a schoolteacher for the fever-blinded Mary.
Hints abound, then, of the possibilities this show might have pushed into areas of specific focus, but its faithfulness to the source (as well as its unwillingness to transcend the conventions of musical theater) leave an empty taste. We might well connect with the story of a young girl and her family struggling to survive amid strange and uncertain conditions. But, here, we do so only half-heartedly.