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'Little House' story comes to life

Steve Blanchard (Charles "Pa" Ingalls), Kara Lindsay (Laura Ingalls), Maeve Moynihan (Carrie Ingalls), Jenn Gambatese (Mary Ingalls) and Melissa Gilbert (Caroline "Ma" Ingalls) are shown in a scene from the world premiere musical "Little House on the Prairie" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A line from Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "Little House On The Prairie" has stayed with me for a long, long time. Laura's excited because her family is moving farther west. "You never know what will happen," she wrote, "nor where you'll be tomorrow, when you're traveling in a covered wagon."

On stage at the Guthrie Theater, 23-year-old Kara Lindsay, who has the lead role of Laura Ingalls in Guthrie's world premier musical "Little House On the Prairie," catches perfectly the young girl's spirit of adventure. This new production sparkles, immeasurably assisted by Lindsay's right-on-the-mark portrayal of Laura.

Midst rumors that "Little House" may move on from Minneapolis to other large cities and eventually to Broadway, a theater critic for one of the Twin Cities newspapers submitted a very unfavorable review, which did not agree with the one I'm writing. The Guthrie continues to be sold out rather regularly, and at the performance I attended, the audience was quick to stand up, clap and cheer, and a buzz of excitement was in the air. There were smiling faces all around me in the primarily adult audience. Among a few children seated nearby that night, I saw several wearing traditional sunbonnets, calico pinafores and carrying rag dolls.

Author Wilder wrote her own family's story in eight books, which comprise the popular "Little House" series, a slightly fictionalized account of what it was like to grow up in the American West in the 1870s and '80s. Laura was born in Wisconsin in 1867. Subsequently the family lived in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota.

The Guthrie play opens as the Ingalls are leaving Minnesota for Dakota Territory, where land can be claimed free from the United States government if the farm remains occupied for five years. "Pa" and "Ma" Ingalls are well played by Steve Blanchard, known for "Beauty And The Beast" and other Broadway roles, and by Melissa Gilbert, now 44, who brings star-recognition from her eight years as Laura in the television series. They, with their three daughters, load up their possessions to board the covered wagon for their move westward.

Because this action-packed show is very fast moving, it doesn't take long for them to reach their destination near what is now DeSmet, S.D. I found I never had time to check my watch; I was too engrossed looking and listening. Packed full of songs, the music and story blend together, singers and dancers keeping up the pace, offering what I consider a very satisfying experience at the theater.

In their new location the Ingalls battle drought, sickness, daughter Mary's blindness caused by typhoid, fire, blizzard, fear of Indians and often shortage of food and money. Joys include a bountiful crop sometimes, a new little house built by Pa, barn dances, buggy races, friendships, firecrackers on Fourth of July, Christmas surprises and Pa's night-time fiddling. As we watch, the children mature, and first love comes for Laura.

Jean Gambatese is very good as Mary, the oldest sister. She and Laura share a beautiful duet, "I'll Be Your Eyes," referring to Mary's blindness and Laura's determination to help her. Carrie, the youngest, portrayed by Maeve Moynihan of Edina, is a 14-year-old trouper, who played Tiny Tim at Guthrie for three years until she grew too tall for the role.

Kevin Massey makes an appealing Almanzo Wilder, Laura's future husband. He drives a smart buggy in good weather and a cutter in winter. Some of the best scenes show him racing off behind his "brown Morgan horses," often with Laura in the seat beside him. These episodes are cleverly staged without any animals and in a way that simulates motion, giving the illusion of speed. Massey and Lindsay share just the right chemistry and sing delightfully together: "Faster" and "Endless Sky."

Every story worth telling needs a villain. Nellie Oleson of the books and the TV series supplied that part. Here Sarah Jane Ford brings to life Nellie-of-the-pretty-blond-curls, often seen carrying a frilly parasol to protect her white skin. Nellie's insincere smile and her sly, scheming sweetness don't fool Laura as they spar in arguments at school and later compete for Almanzo's attentions and buggy rides.

Quick set changes suggest the passing of the seasons as yellow wheat fields blow in the wind; then summer fades to an arctic winter. Now and then stars shine brightly in the sky over a lonely prairie. Melodic sounds come from "down in the pit" where the orchestra is playing, directed by the talented Richard Carsey, who says his aim is "to see to it that the audience is swept along with the story and music."

Women artists make up the creative team: Francesca Zambello, directing; Rachel Portman, score; Donna di Novelli, lyrics; Rachel Sheinkin, book; Adrianne Lobel, design and Michelle Lynch, choreographing. They hold impressive credits for their work on Broadway and in movies.

Since two weeks of extra performances were added to the long run, "Little House" will continue at Guthrie through mid-October.