LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, The MusicalBook by: Rachel Sheinkin
Music by: Rachel Portman
Lyrics by: Donna di Novelli
Based on THE LITTLE HOUSE SERIES by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Plaza Theatre Company
Directors- Soni & Jodie Barrus
Choreography- Nichole Carrano
Music Director- Soni Barrus, Assisted by Kathy Lemons
Stage Manager- Lindsay Batt
Set Design- Parker Barrus
Costume Design- Megan A. Liles
Lighting Design- Cameron Barrus
Prop Design- Soni Barrus
Laura Ingalls- Rylee Mullen
Ma (Caroline Ingalls)- Bryana Stephens
Pa (Charles Ingalls)- JaceSon P. Barrus
Mary Ingalls- Eden Barrus
Carrie Ingalls- Kylie Kimball
Almonzo Wilder- Josh McLemore
Robert Boast/Young Olaf- Devin Wilson
Nellie Olson- Mimi Barrus
Eliza Wilder- Madison Heaps
Mr. Olson- Darren Clark
Dr. Tann- Bob Beck
Miss Bayne- Cherie Robinson
Mr. Brewster- Kyle Scarborough
Mrs. Brewster- Kathy Lemons
Owen- Jacob Hansen
McKenzie- Jacob Hansen
Cap Garland- Maddox Marino
Willie Olsen- JT Morris
Ida- Nayda Leduc
Minnie- Baylee Arledge
Clarence- Anthony Sullivan
Tommy- Hayden Young
Ruby- Lucie Foster
Martha- Amanda Foster
Blanche- Allison Bond
Ensemble- Anna Hopper, Christina Hopper, Ruth Ann Warwick, Josie Boehm
Reviewed Performance: 3/7/2020
Reviewed by Jordan Thomas, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
If you missed the national tour that made stops at both Bass Performance Hall and Dallas Summer Musicals in the summer of 2010, it is unlikely that you have ever seen this production or heard the show’s music. As a lifelong Little House fan (as in, I successfully derailed the family vacation from Branson, Missouri to Mansfield, Missouri just to see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s historic home and museum the summer before 5th grade, and I dressed in full-out homemade calico prairie attire for the visit), I jumped at the opportunity to witness the national tour production; and since then I have been anxiously waiting the day it would be made available to local theaters!
Seeing as the show never made it to Broadway and only had a short regional run and national tour, the show itself was never really workshopped and perfected. While there are great moments throughout, the book is a bit choppy and many of the (nearly 30) songs feel misplaced, don’t really propel the story forward or end right when they peak. The writers tried to include so much of Laura’s life in two and a half hours that the show’s attempted overarching story is a little lost. To top off a tough script, there are no full recordings of the music for reference. And, odds are, this is the first time the show has ever been attempted at a theater in the round.
Despite these inevitable script challenges, Plaza has created an intimate production you will want to see. Plaza’s immersive rendition shares a beautiful, naturally family-friendly story of strength, love and community. Little House on the Prairie is the perfect show of the season to bring the whole family to!
Little House on the Prairie follows the book’s narrative more so than the TV series. Rather than settling in the inaccurate location of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, the Ingalls family travels west to DeSmet, South Dakota to claim land and make a better life for their family. Hardships come in the form of harsh blizzards, raging fires and life-threatening disease, which are made better by the town’s lively community of characters (including several familiar individuals you know and love, or maybe you love to hate!) Through it all we get to witness Laura grow from a tomboyish child to a grown woman claiming maturity and finding love.
As Laura, Rylee Mullen does a commendable job of showcasing these ranging emotions as Laura ages from an energetic and playful child to a responsible and selfless young lady. In the first few scenes a delightful relationship is built between Laura and Pa (Charles Ingalls) played by JaceSon Barrus. Barrus embodies a tender strength in this role in his moments with Laura and especially with Ma (Caroline Ingalls), played nicely by Bryana Stephens. It was quite touching to see these relationships grow throughout the production.
Laura’s younger sister Carrie and older sister Mary, played by Kylie Kimball and Eden Barrus respectfully, were both solid in their roles. Kylie Kimball is one of those actresses you just have to keep watching when she is on stage. She is fully engaged, but never to the point of being distracting or upstaging the focus of the scene. In a child role that could have easily been made into an annoying bit, young Kimball was humorous and genuine. Eden Barrus as Mary was my favorite performance of the night. Barrus’ Mary was effortless, sweet and steadfast. Her singing was pure and a perfect fit for the tender, yet powerful duet with Laura, “I’ll Be Your Eyes” which is sung as Mary goes blind.
This show is nothing without a solid ensemble of featured characters and strong singers, which directors Soni and Jodi Barrus successfully pulled together. Additional standouts from the ensemble and featured roles include Anthony Sullivan as Clarence and Kathy Lemons as Mrs. Brewster.
Costumes done by Megan A. Liles were overall fine but did not have a full attention to detail for consistency in the time period. In a scene where Laura is walking to school barefoot, Laura was wearing noticeable footless tights. When it came time for Laura to put her shoes back on while on stage, black modern no-show socks were pulled out and placed on her feet rather than stockings. The wedding veil used on stage was not even close to being the right time period. I’m not saying we need to go crazy and remove all velcro from dresses and use only buttons to be time period accurate; but having obviously modern items on stage in the midst of some great pieces is not ideal. (Special shout out to the green splatter-paint plastic ball with a barcode that somehow made its way on stage with some boys during a schoolyard scene?)
Additionally, Laura was in a red wig, leaving her looking more than anything like Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables falling in love with Gilbert Blythe than Laura Ingalls with Almanzo Wilder. Due to the similar characteristics of Anne and Laura, this choice was consistently distracting. The area Liles did especially excel in was everything worn by Nellie Olsen, played satisfyingly snotty by Mimi Barrus, and the nice detail of placing an older Carrie in the same dress seen on young Laura in the show’s opening. This detail fit the characters well as a poorer family like the Ingalls would certainly have hand me downs.
Set design for this production, led by Parker Barrus, was no easy task. A large portion of the story takes place inside the Ingalls’ home. In the original touring production seen on a larger proscenium stage, the house was simplistically represented by two full sized walls arranged upstage. Plaza went for this same effect, but with half walls. While the idea was great and the pieces were nicely made, it did not fit the space well. I sat on the east side and had trouble seeing every scene that took place inside the house. The set piece prevented any action from happening in front of my section due to lack of space, and nearly all the blocking and choreography catered to the opposite side. Beyond this, the set design was beautiful, especially the train! I also greatly enjoyed how simplistic elements like wagon rides were tastefully emphasized with the use of a turntable.
An overall highlight of this production is the sheer beauty of the lighting and projection design. Cameron Barrus’ light design propelled the story in such a magical way. With the aid of some outstanding projections that appeared in the perfect shape of chunky old wood 2x4s adorned on each corner of the space, also designed by Barrus, each scene was visually appealing. The starry night sky was truly peaceful, and the eerie stage picture that was created during a large prairie fire were two visuals I will not soon forget.
Another unique attribute of this production is that the backing tracks were all recorded at the Plaza Academy Studios by local musicians. Until I read the playbill, I had no inkling that the tracks being used were not provided with the licensing. The sound was full and crisp, and the recordings were well balanced with the live voices on stage. Kudos to Parker Barrus for being the audio engineer of these tracks as well as having the credit of sound design alongside G. Aaron Siler which was equally solid!
Directors Jodi and Soni Barrus put together a delightful production that is sure to keep you entertained whether you are a long time Little House fan or have never been entertained by the classic prairie stories before. Additionally, how often is it that you can see a fresh new musical locally produced in DFW, based on a classic historical figure of world renown, that’s naturally family-friendly and has some timeless messages?!
I think Jodi and Soni said it best in their director’s note, “A central theme in this story is how to become prairie strong - able to cope with whatever life handed you with the endurance and fortitude it took to move on to make a better life for your family because family was the most important thing. And how did they do this? By the sense of commitment, they felt for their community coupled with a respect for and desire to serve one another.” Gather your family together young and old and head on over to see Little House on the Prairie, the musical at Plaza Theatre Company now through April 4th!
Plaza Theatre Company
305 S. Anglin St.
Cleburne, TX 76031
Plays through April 4th.
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 3:00 pm
Tickets range from $15-25.
For more information and to purchase tickets, go to plaza-theatre.com or call their box office at 817.202.0600.