Little House Musical A Bit Unsettling; Big Hand For Puppet Carnival

Scarlet fever, blindness, a blizzard and a crop-killing fire hit the Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie, The Musical. And that's just the first act. These hearty pioneers respond to disaster after disaster in typically hearty (theater) pioneer fashion—by singing spirited ballads and engaging in thigh-slapping yeehaw dancing alongside their fellow settlers.

How unsettling.

The show now at the Music Hall at Fair Park has taken the much-loved homespun stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder about Midwestern homestead life in the late 19th century—from which sprang the long-running NBC series of the 1970s—and spun them into an unwieldy, disjointed $4.5 million 21st century crazy quilt. The musical bears little relation to the books or the TV show, but it will remind you of other (better) burlap-and-gingham swatches of Americana, including Oklahoma!, Little Women and Li'l Abner.

The cartoonish stunt casting of series star Melissa Gilbert doesn't help. At 46, Gilbert now plays "Ma" opposite young-looking adult Kara Lindsay as adolescent Laura (Gilbert's childhood TV role). Gilbert's talent, it turns out, is best restricted to a small screen. On a large stage, she's swallowed up; her thin, shaky singing never quite catches the big notes of the few brief songs Ma, a relatively minor character, is allowed to join in on. Even Gilbert's speaking voice quivers as she carefully over-enunciates each word of dialogue. "There's. Something. You-u. Must. Know-ow. Low-rah." Just. Like. Tha-at.

LHOTP, the M, which debuted at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater in 2008, was designed for delivery to hinterland audiences looking for family-friendly fare. The idea to turn the Wilder material into a musical started percolating in 2004 between director Francesca Zambello (The Little Mermaid) and scenic designer Adrianne Lobel (A Year With Frog and Toad). Crimes of the Heart playwright (and SMU grad) Beth Henley was brought on to write the book, but she had differences over the "collaborative process" (or so she told The New York Times) and was replaced by Rachel Sheinkin (Tony winner for the book of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). British film and opera composer Rachel Portman and opera lyricist Donna di Novelli collaborated on the score, whose 25 songs are equally dull and barely distinguishable from one another.

An all-woman team dedicated to weaving something stageworthy out of Wilder's stories of plucky young women on the Great Plains also should have done better by the characters than making them tired, one-dimensional female stereotypes. But that's exactly what they've created. Laura's a headstrong tomboy, more like Louisa May Alcott's Jo than the literary or TV versions of Laura Ingalls. Ma is a simpering saint constantly hugging her chilluns and casting wide-eyed stares up at big, strong Pa (Broadway star Steve Blanchard, who is a nice hunk of man and a marvelous singer). Laura's older sister Mary (Alessa Neeck) is another goody-goody—even more sickeningly cherubic after going blind. Little sis Carrie (Anastasia Korbal) is written and performed as a sassy sitcom kid, earning stern looks and spells on the naughty stool. And remember bratty Nellie Oleson from the TV show? Now she's a curly-haired westward ho, trying to turn the head of good-guy bachelor Almanzo Wilder (tenor Kevin Massey, giving the show's best performance).

At least Nellie provides some much-needed lightness to the proceedings. Despite the rich watercolor hues of Lobel's scenic backdrops, suggesting wide-open spaces and crimson sunsets, Little House is a resoundingly dreary enterprise. It's up to Nellie, played by Kate Loprest (she was in Dallas Theater Center's own flop farm-wife musical, Sarah, Plain and Tall), to wake up the second act. Loprest squeals and squeaks through her comedic solo, "Without an Enemy," about how her mean-girl character is lost without Laura Ingalls to pick on. But the song's so similar to Wicked's "What Is This Feeling?," and Loprest seems to be trying so hard to be Kristin Chenoweth, it's as if Wicked's blond witch Galinda took a left turn at Kansas and dropped in to visit the Ingalls clan in Dakota Territory.

After that first act full of despair and natural disasters, then that burst of post-intermission clowning, Little House gets even more confused. Shortly after Nellie's comic lament (performed in bunny slippers), we're jolted into the spooky cabin of Laura's employer, the suicidally depressed Mrs. Brewster (Meredith Inglesby). Waving a butcher knife and holding a fake baby the size of a marble rye, she sings to Laura a dirge about suffering from "wind sickness." It's like dropping from Oz into a Dorothea Lange photo.

The high point of Little House on the Prairie, The Musical comes, oddly, after the curtain calls, when the cast, minus Ms. Gilbert, who vanishes into the wings, kicks up their heels to some lively fiddle playin'. It's the first and only moment in this show when anyone, including the audience, looks like they're enjoying themselves.

You'll smile a lot and sometimes laugh out loud at Dallas Children's Theater's witty, wonderful Carnival of the Animals, performed by the Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts. This 70-minute all-puppet performance, done in the Czech style on side-by-side all-black stages, presents Camille Saint-Saens' familiar 14-movement suite reflecting the sounds, rhythms and gestures of creatures of the sky, woods and waters. Saint-Saens himself makes an appearance in rod-puppet form to introduce and comment on the pieces.

Adapted by writer and musician B. Wolf, Carnival of the Animals, like Peter and the Wolf, tells children two stories. One is about how to listen to classical music and the instruments that play it. Carnival has a lovely scene explaining the differences among violins, violas, cellos and basses, the instruments flying out from the wings to be plucked and bowed by disembodied hands. The other story it tells is about communicating with no words, just music and images. For the movement called "Le Cygne" (The Swan), perhaps the most famous part of the suite, a larger-than-life white swan swims slowly out onto a shimmering blue lake, accompanied by a shy cygnet. Mother and baby float serenely together to the dreamy tune, the mama swan dipping her black beak down to the little one to give it a push into independence across the rippling water. Then, worried, mother swan tucks baby back under her wing. Gorgeous.

As they always do, the fine puppet masters of this company—Kathy Burks and her co-director Douglass Burks, Sally Fiorello, Trish Long, Ziggy Renner and Melissa Cashion—end their production by revealing to the audience the secrets to their magic. The puppeteers, invisible throughout the performance, step into the spotlight to explain how they make the different types of puppets do all that running, swimming, flying and fluttering. It's a tribute to how convincingly these artists do their work that it always comes as a bit of surprise to find out that all those beautiful creatures had human helpers behind them.