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All Over the Map

Little House on the Prairie in Minneapolis, Maria/Stuart in Washington D.C., and Friends Are Forever in San Francisco. logo
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!"

-- Dan Bacalzo

Emily Townley, Amy McWilliams, and Naomi Jacobson
in Maria/Stuart
(© Stan Barouh)

The characters of Jason Grote's Maria/Stuart, now premiering at Washington D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, are all plagued by a soda-guzzling, German-verse-reciting changeling, but only Aunt Sylvia, the allegedly "mentally ill" member of the family acknowledges its existence. So are those of us pretending to be sane really just in denial?

"In his book Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault talks about how madness was an invented thing that came along with the enlightenment, when we expected things to be rational," says Grote. "We live in a world that is based on science and technology and is seemingly very rational, but it is also weirdly surreal. The boundaries between reality and fantasy are very porous."

Grote, best known for 1001, has once again drawn from multiple sources of inspiration for this new play. "I was very fascinated by this Hillary Clinton generation of women that had achieved all of these laudable goals and had some degree of equality, power, and influence over society, but in many ways were deeply unhappy," he says. And, of course, the work also pays tribute to Freidrich Schiller's Mary Stuart. "I thought it would be really fascinating to take and transpose this very melodramatic, overwrought, German romantic rivalry between two English queens (Mary and Elizabeth I) and make it about these two modern day suburban women in order to trivialize that conflict. Plus, I like to look at what I've done in a lot of my prior plays and then try to do something totally different. I've never liked family drama as a genre. So, if I were to do that sort of project -- that I thought I'd never do -- this is what it would look like."

-- Zachary Stewart

Gerrad Bohl, Dann Howard, and Leo Lawhorn
in Friends Are Forever
(© Lois Tema)

"When you're talking about relationships, you've almost got to laugh or you'll just cry," chuckles Tom W. Kelly while talking about his new comedy, Friends Are Forever, now premiering at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center, which has produced five of his other works.

Kelly's inspirations for the play, which revolves around three gay men and how their friendships with one another shift when they each bring a lover into the mix, ranged from Sex in the City to "the quick repartee of a poker group I meet with every week," he says. Throughout the piece, Kelly juggles the realities of open and monogamous relationships, including an honest love that blossoms between a young hustler and a masseur. "One issue that is plaguing the gay community right now is a lack of good, positive role models for gay couples. Shows like Queer as Folk and Will and Grace just haven't spoken to me at all, so I thought -- write your own."

But ultimately, Kelly has another mission in writing the piece. "I've seen so many gay plays where there's homophobia, even though it's a gay writer, and anger," notes Kelly. "I just want people to go and laugh, and maybe see themselves and their own mistakes on stage, and relate to it in that way."

-- Tristan Fuge


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