Cumberland County Playhouse’s production of “Little House on the Prairie: The Musical” opened on Friday, Sept. 10. Based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin, the story is told through the magic of music, song, dance, sets and costumery. The musical follows the life of the adventurous wild child, Laura Ingalls (Harli Cooper), her Pa Charles and Ma Caroline (Britt Hancock and Weslie Webster) and two sisters, Mary and Carrie (Heather McCall and double cast Mahayla Lantry and Sarah Hedrick) facing their adversities and celebrating their victories throughout their pursuit of the American dream of a better life on the South Dakota prairie.
The music by Rachel Portman and lyrics by Donna Di Novelli is a balance of intensity, complexity, and layered with emotion, giving yet another dimension to the musical, which music director Ron Murphy and the orchestra expertly executes with precision.
Comedic relief is offered by Nellie Oleson (Hannah Hayes), the snooty, rich daughter of the local mercantile owner, played by Jason Ross. Despite her uppity social standing in the settlement of De Smet, she’s green with envy when love interest Almonzo Wilder (Christian Melhuish) shows pleasing attention to Laura and her wild ways.
The Ingalls and the families of De Smet suffer a harsh winter, crop fires and more as they try to make lives for themselves. When Mary comes down with Scarlett Fever, it changes the landscape of her bright future and her dream of teaching to a dark one when she loses her sight.
Laura assumes the role of the caretaker and vows to be “good” like Mary, set aside her wild childish ways and be everything for Mary that she cannot be for herself. Meanwhile, Almonzo pursues Laura and is an accepting, unselfish and dependable person for Laura as she goes to a neighboring settlement to teach. Laura finds her young self amidst students who won’t take instruction and a host family whose lady of the house is depressed and overwhelmed with her prairie life. Laura refuses to fail so she can keep earning her wages to send for Mary to attend a college for the blind so she can learn Braille, adapt to her condition, become more independent and find her bright future once again. In denial about her feelings toward Almonzo, Laura gives him up and he is pursued by Nellie. In her attempt to grow up and be more like Mary, Laura loses her fervor and gusto; she loses herself and her inner wild child.
Eventually, a more knowledgable and experienced Laura finds her way back to herself, back to her family and her home and back to embracing who she really is – a wild child who becomes “Wilder.”
Cooper packs a punch on stage as Laura, giving a strong performance with every bit of the fire and passion and drive of a true wild child. McCall is epitome of “good” when she portrays Mary; true and honest in her adaptation of the character. When her voice combines with Cooper’s for “I’ll be Your Eyes,” the bold yet tender harmony will envelope you and bring you to tears with its unassuming power and lyrics. It’s as though they really are sisters and will stop at nothing to take care of each other.
As for Hayes’ performance as Nellie, she more than succeeds in creating the character you hate to love and love to watch. As Almonzo, Melhuish is endearing, kind and gentle as he loves the wild ways of Laura and encourages her to be who she is. When he says he would never tame her, you believe him. He absolutely delivers that love – that pure and selfless kind of love – on stage.
When the motherly Webster holds Cooper in her arms and they cry together as she sings “Wild Child,” it is beyond moving – it is brilliant.
Directed by Bryce McDonald, “Little House on the Prairie: The Musical” is rated G and runs through Oct. 28. For ticket information and showtimes for the classic tale, call the box office at 484-5000 or visit ccplayhouse.com.