There exists a pre-sold audience (of a certain age) that has a genuine and continuing fondness for the popular long-running TV series "Little House on the Prairie" (1974-1982), as well as for the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fans should be warmly receptive to the musical adaptation by Rachel Sheinkin (book) Rachel Portman (music) and Donna di Novelli (lyrics) that honors the pioneering spirit of American homesteaders through the eyes and experiences of a rambunctious, rebellious adolescent girl. As the musical emphasizes, growing up isn’t easy for Laura Ingalls (Kara Lindsay), but neither is survival for her family as they settle into farming on their newly acquired homestead in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s.
Pa (Steve Blanchard), Ma (Melissa Gilbert), older sister Mary (Alessa Neeck) and younger sister Carrie (Carly Rose Sonenclar) provide the strong circle of normalcy, affection and understanding for Laura throughout her difficult years between childhood and adulthood. Sections from various episodes have been lifted from the series and stitched together within a frame that follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Ingalls family from its tumultuous settling to the inevitable joy of a wedding.
Except for young Laura’s spirited pronouncement "let’s go west" in full support of her Papa’s desire to put down new roots in the new territory, the musical doesn’t offer much plot or conflict except for substantiating the survival-of-the-fittest theme for most of Act I. Under Francesca Zambello’s unhurried, attentive direction things eventually begin to percolate as Laura has a rough time settling down in school where she gets on the wrong side of snooty well-to-do student Nellie (Kate Loprest) who considers her an enemy. But the family is devastated when Mary, the smartest of the sisters, goes blind as a result of scarlet fever. This sparks Laura to sing to Mary "I’ll Be Your Eyes" and unselfishly decide to take a job teaching school in order to pay for Mary’s education at a school for the blind.
Zambello, who directed "The Little Mermaid" on Broadway, and is primarily known for her work in opera, guides the company through such experiences as a blazing wheat field, a blizzard, an amusingly staged buggy race and a lively hoedown. A lovely tableau opens the show in which we see the settlers, encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1863, on the move in slow motion.
There are a few opportunities presented for choreographer Michele Lynch to prompt the Ingalls and the other settlers to kick up their heels. But these moments are not intended to raise the roof of the house or the barn. Despite the Ingalls having to deal with the hardship that comes with living in the untamed territory, as well as surviving natural disasters, it is Laura’s progress from immaturity to maturity from which the show’s book takes its cue. Her resistance to a romantic connection with Almanzo (Kevin Massey) provides a sweet thread of expectancy and anticipation throughout. Massey is full of vigor as Almanzo her undaunted but respectful young suitor. In the time-honored soubrette tradition, Kate Loprest is a comical charmer as Nellie, Laura’s rival for Almanzo’s attention.
Lindsay gives an energetic and sparking performance as Laura and would be served better with less electronic enhancement of her lovely soprano voice. Blanchard is excellent as the rugged and good-looking Pa, and as head of the family sings with a commanding baritone voice. Neeck and Sonenclar are contrasted nicely by their personality and age, as Laura’s older and younger sisters respectively. All the supporting roles are filled with performers who partake wholeheartedly in this wholesome outing as well as add a robust sound to the chorus portions.
Portman’s melodic score compliments the source material without being extraordinary. Di Novelli’s lyrics are, on first hearing, down-to-earthy. Portman, whose films scores have won praise (Academy Award for Best Original Score for Emma and nominations for "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat"), has written a very fine climactic song "Wild Child" for Ma. This is sung by Gilbert with an intensity that comes wonderfully out of the blue. Otherwise Gilbert, who is most famously known for playing Laura in the TV series, gives a quietly affecting performance.
Set designer Adrianne Lobel gives prominence to the big and changing skies. Sections of the Ingall’s modest home are cleverly designed to move about to suggest other buildings. The lighting by Mark McCullough is expert and the costumes designed by Jess Goldstein are colorful representations of the era’s styles.
"Little House on the Prairie, The Musical" had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2008 and has since undergone extensive changes. While far from being a theatrical trail blazer, this family-friendly show can probably feel secure that it has what it takes to make its lengthy projected national tour a success even if it never comes to Broadway.
Little House on the Prairie, The Musical (through October 10), Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. For tickets ($25 to $92). 973-376-4343