Steve Blanchard and Melissa Gilbert
in Little House on the Prairie
(© Michal Daniel)
Steve Blanchard and Melissa Gilbert
in Little House on the Prairie
(© Michal Daniel)
While the new musical Little House on the Prairie, which is currently making its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater, is based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and focuses on the Ingalls family's later years as homesteaders in De Smet, South Dakota, Minneapolis is an apt place for the show to launch. After all, the town of Walnut Grove, a mere 150 miles away, is where the long-running Little House on the Prairie television series was set.

"If people only know the TV show, they'll still find all the characters they love," assures director Francesca Zambello, currently also represented on stage by Broadway's The Little Mermaid. "And while I didn't read the books until I was an adult, I was enthralled by the writing, the storytelling, and the sense of the American pioneer spirit. What makes it worthy material for a musical is that you have in Laura a strong protagonist, surrounded by a family of fascinating and rich characters."

The show stars Steve Blanchard as Pa, Kara Lindsay as Laura, Jenn Gambatese as Mary, Sara Jean Ford as Nellie, Kevin Massey as Almanzo, and Maeve Moynihan as Carrie; but fans of the television show will get a particular thrill out of seeing Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura on the series, in the role of Caroline "Ma" Ingalls. "She brings a unique perspective," says Zambello. "But from the beginning, she's completely reapproached the material. There's a good story that Melissa told when she came to rehearsal. She went to read the books, and discovered that all the parts about Laura were underlined, so she had to buy a whole new set so she could study things from Ma's perspective."

Zambello's collaborators also include Oscar winner Rachel Portman, whose score the director says "has a big, sweeping, strong melodic sound," and Tony Award-winning book writer Rachel Sheinkin. "She's brought a depth of character and humor to the piece, and has really helped hone the whole storyline and arc of the characters." While Global Broadway Productions has previously announced that it is aiming to bring the musical to Broadway in the 2008-2009 season, Zambello isn't ready to discuss that yet. "I think you don't know what's going to happen with a show until you do it for a bit," she states. "We've been having a wonderful audience response here, and I think people feel very connected to the material. We even see a lot of girls coming in bonnets and boys in cowboy hats!"