Meredith Inglesby realizes that the audience might be slightly less than thrilled when she walks onstage as Ma in the national tour of “Little House on the Prairie, The Musical.”
But her goal is to prove that “Little House” is a “wonderful show and a wonderful story” – with or without Melissa Gilbert.
“As an understudy, your job is to do the part as well as you can and make the audience think you’re doing it as well as the star,” said Inglesby.
Gilbert canceled out of the Spokane leg of the tour while she recovers from back surgery.
Inglesby called Gilbert “beloved” and said that she was certain there will be “a great deal of disappointment” in the audience. Yet she’s also pretty darn excited to tackle the role for six straight performances.
“I have my own interpretation of it and I enjoy doing the part quite a bit,” Inglesby said.
She’s already a seasoned “Ma” veteran, having played the role about a dozen times when Gilbert needed a breather.
And Inglesby is certainly no Broadway rookie. She is a veteran of two big Broadway extravaganzas, playing Babette in “Beauty and the Beast” and various roles in “The Little Mermaid.”
Now, she’s in a show that is taking what you might call a reverse course. “Little House on the Prairie, The Musical” is the rare touring musical that has yet to play Broadway.
This show, based on the famous Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books, began as a project at the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2008. It ran for months there and broke house records.
It was revamped and reworked at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey last year. Then the producers packed it up and took it on a multicity tour.
Broadway may yet be the show’s ultimate destination; the producers are working on that. Meanwhile it’s playing to boffo crowds all over the U.S.
“People seem to absolutely love it,” said Inglesby. “They are so enthusiastic about it.
“It’s such a sentimental piece for our nation – we all have some kind of relationship to these stories, whether from watching the TV show or reading the books.”
The stage show is a musical condensation of about four of Wilder’s books. It follows young Laura from about age 12 to 18, from Wisconsin to South Dakota.
It’s worth remembering that Laura, not Ma, is unquestionably the show’s main character. The New York Times called Kara Lindsay, who plays Laura, “endearing from start to finish.”
Rachel Portman, who won an Academy Award for the soundtrack of “Emma,” wrote the score, with lyrics by Donna Di Novelli. The music combines folk and roots influences with what Inglesby calls “grand sweeping elements.”
The show has a 15-piece orchestra, including local musicians hired in each city.
Inglesby said Gilbert hurt her back earlier in the tour and “has been working her tail off through the pain.”
“But it just came to the point where she had to have surgery,” said Inglesby. “And she put it off way too long, in my opinion, and she is extremely disappointed that she won’t be able to do the Spokane run.”
Does Inglesby harbor any of those “understudy-gets-big- break-and-becomes-star” fantasies?
She just laughed and said, “This isn’t where that’s going to happen. Melissa is coming back and won’t be in pain anymore.”