In the first hour of “Little House on the Prairie: The Musical,” now embarking on a nationwide tour starting with New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the Ingalls family starves, freezes, battles scarlet fever and watches the wheat crop disastrously burn on the Fourth of July. One half-expects locusts to descend after intermission. Instead, musical-comedy gears spring into action with a villainess in Shirley Temple ringlets wearing bright pink bunny slippers. Those slippers, in small-town South Dakota circa 1880, are indicative of this ambitious but disjointed show’s problems.
The $4.5 million production attempts to recapture the affection of generations of fans devoted to the “Prairie” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the resulting NBC television series, which began a nine-season run in 1974.
Tuner is the brainchild of opera director Francesca Zambello (“The Little Mermaid”) and set designer Adrianne Lobel (“A Year With Frog and Toad”). Work started more than five years ago, with playwright Beth Henley (“Crimes of the Heart”) originally penning the book, later replaced by Rachel Sheinkin (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”). Film composer Rachel Portman and opera lyricist Donna di Novelli complete the all-female team.
The “Little House” novels may well be transformable into a moody musical examination of the hardships and perseverance demonstrated by pioneers who carved our nation out of the unforgiving landscape; or a heartwarming family musical, with a stageful of little girls charming our hearts; or, for that matter, a knee-slapping 19th century version of “Green Acres.” However, the show’s creators have combined all three styles into an awkward and unsatisfying mix.
First half is excessively dour; at the child-filled matinee performance reviewed, the under-10 set appeared squeamish as one of the Ingalls girls blindly crawled around the stage in the wheat-field conflagration. The mood never was dispelled despite the second act’s dose of good cheer, capped by a happy romance.
Portman and di Novelli have provided a burlap-sackful of musical numbers — 27, including reprises — but there’s little of interest in their song bag. The opening sequence (“Thunder”/”Up Ahead”/”The Prairie Moves”) starts things off well enough, and “Faster” is a highly effective song of courtship that temporarily rouses the audience midway through the second act. But most of the score simply fills space, and the several attempts at musical comedy are especially weak. There’s also an eerie interlude with a psychotic farmwife singing of her hardships (“Teacher Girl”) while dangerously waving a carving knife at our heroine.
Melissa Gilbert — the child star of the television series — appears in the relatively minor role of Ma Ingalls. Nostalgia value will surely pay off in some markets, but patrons unfamiliar with the TV show will have a hard time recognizing any star quality; Gilbert is likable but less than impressive in her one solo (“Wild Child”). She dances with abandon in the group curtain call, one of the evening’s livelier moments.
Kara Lindsay takes acting honors in Gilbert’s former role as 14-year-old heroine Laura. While clearly an adult in kid’s clothes (like the majority of the cast), Lindsay provides spirit, spunk and singing prowess. Coming off even better is Kevin Massey as horse trainer Almanzo Wilder; the authors use him sparingly, and every time he comes on, interest picks up. Lindsay and Massey make an attractive couple; their budding romance in the second act, enhanced by Zambello’s inventive staging of the carriage rides, suggest what “Little House” could be.
Steve Blanchard, Alessa Neeck and Carly Rose Sonenclar do well as the rest of the Ingalls clan. Comic villainess Kate Loprest, as Laura’s nemesis Nellie Oleson, seems to have been brought in from Miss Hannigan’s Finishing School and makes a jarring presence.
Zambello works especially well with Lobel and lighting designer Mark McCullough, again and again creating stage pictures with breathtaking vistas. But the ensemble tableaux are less successful; Zambello and choreographer Michele Lynch push the slo-mo button several times too many. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are generally fine, albeit with some questionable dresses in the second act. Music department turns in a professional job, with Broadway pros Larry Hochman, Kevin Stites and Michael Dansicker making much of the often fragmented score.
An earlier production of “Little House” opened in July 2008 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where it did land-office business for an extended run despite mixed reactions. After significant revision, mixed results remain: Zambello and her colleagues don’t seem to know what they want their show to be.
The 18 commercial producers given special arrangement credit at Paper Mill — headed by veteran Ben Sprecher, taking over from Bob Boyett, who spearheaded the Guthrie co-production — apparently recognize the unconventional nature of the affair, lining up an extensive hinterlands tour. Twenty-five stops are booked through June, avoiding major theater centers in favor of prairie hubs like Omaha, Tulsa, Fayetteville and Sioux Falls. More power to them; but while banking what they expect to be impressive advance sales, the producers may want to address the entertainment quotient of their “Little House.”