Let’s address the obvious issue first. Yes, Meredith Inglesby makes an excellent “Ma,” standing in for Melissa Gilbert, who canceled out of the Spokane run because of a back injury.
Yet the more pertinent point is this: “Little House on the Prairie, The Musical” is not about Ma. It’s about young Laura Ingalls, played by the spunky and talented Kara Lindsay. Her name doesn’t have any star power, but I suspect that even if Gilbert were in the cast, Lindsay would emerge as the true center of the show.
Meanwhile, the soul of the show belongs to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House” books. The characters, plot, themes and outlook come directly out of Wilder’s classic books. I can’t give the musical any higher praise than to say: It made me remember exactly what I loved about those books when I was a kid.
They’re how-to pioneer books; history lessons in the settlement of America; blueprints for how to build loving families; and excellent examples for girls and boys about why being ornery, stubborn and just a little bit wild can be a virtue, not a character defect.
I will admit, I was surprised at how effectively this musical conveys that spirit.
Playwright Rachel Sheinkin, composer Rachel Portman and lyricist Donna Di Novelli fill this show with smart, clever dialogue and tuneful, rousing songs. Whenever the show threatens to descend into “historical pageant” territory (brave men and women breaking a wild land!), Laura brings it all back down to earth.
For instance, when Ma and Pa tell Laura she can be anything she wants to be, she thinks for a second and announces, “A railroad man.”
Lindsay is a sardonic Laura with a dry wit and a lovable untamed streak. When she grabs the horses’ reins, the audience, as well as beau Almanzo, can only hang on for dear life. Lindsay, with her slight frame and nervous energy, is believable as both a gawky 12-year-old and graceful 18-year-old.
Inglesby is poised and assured as Ma, with a fine singing voice and excellent chemistry with the stalwart Steve Blanchard as Pa. They certainly ought to have good chemistry – they’re married to each other in real life.
This is a full Equity (actors union) cast, with excellent character performances throughout, including Kevin Massey as an earnest and lovestruck Almanzo Wilder.
The best supporting performance came from Kate Loprest as the stuck-up Nellie Oleson, all blond ringlets and smug superiority. Loprest got the show’s biggest laughs as she attempted to climb over a fence rail, got high-centered, and ended up in a tangle of calico, bonnet and parasol. She sang one entire comic song, “Without an Enemy” while flopping brattily around on her bed quilts.
I can’t speak for the entire audience, of course, but any Gilbert-related disappointment seemed to have dissipated well before the rousing and emotional final song, “Wild Child.”
Most of us had no idea what to expect from this show – it has only been around for a year or so and has yet to hit Broadway – yet it certainly exceeded my expectations.