Exactly what's left when a half-pint of sweet cider is half drunk up? Only the spunkiest pioneer girl America ever loved. But onstage in a 21st-century musical-can little Laura Ingalls still hold our hearts?
With Melissa Gilbert (the TV Laura) headlining as Ma, Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre was willing to bet on it, launching a six-week debut of Little House on the Prairie: The Musical in 2008. The payoff was an extended run that has morphed into a 20-city tour.
Fans of the Little House books and TV series will see some big differences in the prairie life set to music. The erstwhile modest Caroline Ingalls hitches up her skirts to dance and scarcely misses a beat when Pa (Steve Blanchard) smacks her bustled bottom. Laura's future sister-in-law appears in caricature of the mean-spirited teacher who punishes Carrie out of spite. And when Laura (Megan Campanile) offers to bear Carrie's punishment, her performance is too gleeful, failing to communicate the righteous fury that wrinkles the pages as she and her readers see her frightened little sister mistreated.
Aside from stage-stealing performances by Kevin Massey as Almanzo Wilder, the music, story, and characters do their best work as Laura and Mary's newfound harmony fills the stage on "I'll Be Your Eyes." Laura's promise to see for Mary (Alessa Neeck), blinded by scarlet fever, goes much further in the scenes that follow, as Laura gives of herself to help Mary regain her independence and joy in life and learning.
All in all, as Melissa Gilbert pointed out in a television interview, "It is a really nice night of family theater that is not based on a cartoon and that is not Disney." Book lovers, to be fair, just might have to check their reading glasses at the door and enjoy the genre for what it can accomplish: a family portrait of joy and sorrow, need and contentment, loving home and leaving home, with one tiny girl standing tall in heart and voice.
-Tammie McLean is a writer in Greensboro, N.C.
(Editor's Note: This article was edited to reflect that the role of Mary was played by Alessa Neeck.)