The Guthrie’s musical version of Little House on the Prairie just opened, but it’s already more of a cultural phenomenon than a play. Before previews started, it had already sold out its initial run, and by the time it officially opened on Friday night, most of the tickets for a two-week extension had been gobbled up. The strength of the concept alone, it seems, was enough to lure the parents of every girl under the age of sixteen to the Guthrie, many of them first-timers who would otherwise be carting their darlings to a megaplex or the megamall.
The addition to the cast of Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura in the television series, gave the production a bizarre sort of cultural resonance. Cast as Ma, Gilbert is all grown up now, as are the mothers in the audience who identified with her Laura when they were little girls. The result is a triple-dose of trans-generational nostalgia for anyone who read the books and watched the TV show, then gifted the books to their kids and bought the series on DVD. Thus seeded in the collective American psyche, it appears that all the Guthrie needed to do was sprinkle a little Broadway-blessed water on this production, then step back and watch the thing sprout.
How one responds to the Guthrie’s Little House will ultimately depend, I suspect, upon how much one’s love for the books and TV show transfers to the stage. I will admit up front that I harbor no love whatsoever for the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the only actress in the TV show I had any feelings for was the intensely cute Melissa Sue Anderson, whose most recent contribution to contemporary culture was as Beau Bridges’ First Lady in the TV mini-series 10.5: Apocalypse. Please understand, I was fourteen when Little House started, and spent the formative years of my boyhood admiring Michael Landon as Little Joe, the left-handed, Pinto-riding upstart of the Cartwright family on Bonanza. When Landon stopped shooting people and started being the respectable, sensitive, God-fearing patriarch of the Ingalls family, I lost all interest in him and immediately transferred my allegiance to Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man, a show that gave an entire generation the most precious gift imaginable: a lifelong interest in prosthetics.
That said, there are a few things about the Guthrie’s Little House that ticket-holders and ticket-seekers ought to know. First, though Melissa Gilbert’s last official role was on the TV show Nip/Tuck, where she played a woman whose unnatural relationship with a pit bull results in the dog biting her nipple off, everything about Little House is so wholesome you could feed it to your kids for breakfast. Laura is already a teenager when the play begins, and it covers the time period when she becomes a teacher, falls in love and gets married, but her budding romance with Almanza Wilder (Kevin Massey) is as innocent as a sleigh ride and as predictable as Michael Phelps.
So don’t worry: There will be no unhappy surprises, just gentle clichés warmed over a nostalgic fire fueled by the time-honored rituals of the Broadway musical. Every song will swell to a heartfelt crescendo and provide glorious moments of sustained, piercing vibrato. There will be no doubt when to clap, as each number will end with an unmistakable one-two thump that says, “Put your hands together, people, a song has just ended!” There will be jovial working songs, sad songs about the lonesome prairie, songs about horses and farming and wheat—glorious wheat!—as well as joyous full-company production numbers that might actually convince you that homesteading on the Dakota prairie was a heckuva lot of fun.
It will all be very professional, of course, and all of the singing will be first-rate, since most of the principle cast members are Broadway veterans (with the notable exception of Melissa Gilbert herself). As Laura, Kara Lindsay is rambunctious and charming, as she should be, and the show-stealer (every Broadway show has one) is Sara Jean Ford as Nellie Oleson, Laura’s bitchy schoolmate and romantic nemesis.
It’s all there—Pa, Ma, the girls, a cabin—just as you might imagine it. But if this show ever does find its way to Broadway, one can’t help but wonder if the aw-shucks innocence of the thing will be viewed by New Yorkers as more evidence that us Mid-westerners are a bunch of hopelessly romantic yokels. Or, will the show’s utter lack of cynicism communicate to jaded Easterners that our protected place in the breadbasket of America has somehow allowed us to maintain an enviable hold on certain facets of the American Dream lost to everyone else? Laura herself is universally appealing because she is a prototypical teenager who doesn’t much like the script society has handed her. And it’s understandable why girls of every age see her as a beacon of spirited independence. But the rest of Little House on the Prairie is a nostalgic fiction that lives almost exclusively on the musical stage, in songs and sentiments far too corny to express any other way and have anyone take them seriously.
Of course, it’s just a musical based on some books and a TV show, so no one is required to take it seriously. And that may be its saving grace, because in the end, the Guthrie’s Little House on the Prairie is just a lot of good-hearted, high-spirited fun—and that’s all it is, by golly.
Let’s hope it’s enough.
Little House on the Prairie continues at The Guthrie Theater through Oct. 19, guthrietheater.org