Can Laura Ingalls Wilder’s immensely popular series of children’s novels about growing up in the unsettled Midwest of the late 19th century, which gained fame in the 1930s and then inspired a beloved television series that ran from 1974 to 1982, be coherently reduced into a single piece of musical theater? The answer to that question is now on view at Little House on the Prairie, which launches its national tour at the Paper Mill Playhouse (having premiered last year at the Guthrie Theater). While the show is professionally competent and occasionally crowd-pleasing, the end result is a rather forgettable piece of theater.
The work’s creators — including composer Rachel Portman, lyricist Donna di Novelli, librettist Rachel Sheinkin, and director Francesca Zambello — open the musical as the Ingalls family bravely ventures into unsettled territory in South Dakota, where the United States government has promised to freely dole out land to any settlers who can remain on it for at least five years without abandonment. Once there, however, the family encounters wintry blizzards, prairie fires, famine, sickness, and a nonstop parade of hardship.
While there is no overall dramatic arc to clearly frame the musical, it focuses mainly on the character development of Laura (Kara Lindsay), who changes from a tomboy who yearns to farm the land herself to a responsible teacher who can reach out to a troubled adolescent to a puberty-struck young woman. Other episodic subplots include Laura’s courtship by farm boy Almazo (Kevin Massey, who wins the audience’s sympathy with his attractive tenor voice and sensitive, romantic longings), sister Mary’s blindness after surviving scarlet fever and her admission to a school for the blind in Iowa, and Nellie Oleson’s informal competition with Laura for attention, which feels randomly tacked on to provide some light comedy in between all those cold winters.
The score, which credibly evokes a late 19th-century Americana spirit, is well-integrated with the dialogue and specific to character, but would benefit from some trimming here and there. For example, “Teach the Wind,” an eerie ballad where a burdened young mother chastises Laura for not being able to fully understand her woes, is intriguing but completely out of place. The songs that most easily stand out are Laura’s power ballads, including “I’ll Be Your Eyes,” where she promises to care for Mary when she goes blind, and the second act anthem “Restless Heart.” (Larry Hochman’s orchestrations, which emphasize the fiddle, sound wonderful.)
Zambello’s staging includes many striking group portraits, such as an opening image of the cast as it journeys forward into an uncertain future, and quick transitions in between scenes. Choreographer Michele Lynch is able to stage a handful of ensemble hoedowns, but her most inspired creation occurs when the family’s restrained acts of warming their hands and stomping their feet suddenly burst into a fully-fledged dance. Adrianne Lobel’s sparse set design, complimented by Mark McCullough’s lighting, manages to effectively convey sunsets, snowstorms, and other shades of weather on this open terrain, and Jess Goldstein’s costumes emphasize a realistically gritty quality.
Linsday delivers a truly winning performance as Laura, and her wide-eyed enthusiasm and powerful belt keep you engaged in the musical even as its plot occasionally drags and drifts away. Steve Blanchard is ruggedly handsome and restless as Pa, who must question whether his headstrong wanderlust has led his family to despair. And while Melissa Gilbert — who played Laura on the television series and has now graduated to the role of Ma — offers a connection between the television and stage versions, she otherwise makes almost no real impact on the show.