Mr. Cladwell's Thoughts on "Little house on the Prairie"

I love Byrd Bonner. Ever since I performed in Urinetown, the Muscial at the Sheldon Vexler Theatre in San Antonio, (still one of the best productions I've ever had the privelege to be a part of) where I met Byrd (a delectable Caldwell B. Cladwell), the man has been nothing but generous with his time with me. He's one of maybe 2-3 people I know personally who I can divulge in major Broadway and theater talk with and have insightful commentary spewed right back at me. I love the man. Not to mention everytime he visits New York City he brings me playbills from all the shows he saw. Little tokens of love.

Well my good friend Mr. Bonner recently took in the Minneaopolis helmed Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie. In an email sent to a few theater nerds (myself included), Byrd provided his thoughts on the new tuner:


I am in Minneapolis and saw LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, the Musical last night at the Guthrie. I have to say that the Pioneer Press sums it up
pretty well.

The major problem here is the score. Rachel Portman (Oscar winning composer for "Emma") writes beautifully for film. But underscoring does not a musical make, much less a good one. Much of the score for LHOTP is a series of musical themes or elements that never come together in any compelling or memorable way. The only song in which I could discern anything close to an AABA or conventional form was "Wild Child", Ma's eleven o'clock number that should be the heart of the show in some ways. Although Ma is not the protagonist, the song is about Laura and sums up much about her that is important both to Wilder and to us. It is the song in which Melissa Gilbert causes either grimaces or sighs or both. Unconventional writing is fine if it adds up to an appealing whole. Here it comes off as scraps for a quilt, which would have been a nice metaphor somewhere in the proceedings, come to think of it.

Speaking of quilts, I do like QUILTERS a lot; I thought of it a lot while watching LHOTP. It seems to try to approach the scope of QUILTERS without the invention. I must admit to a smile when I read the Pioneer Press review on Wed. I saw the show Tuesday night and stayed for what was not so much a talk back as a 'chat with the cast'. I smiled because I commented to the cast that there were several moments when director Francesca Zambello (director of DISNEY'S THE LITTLE MERMAID on Broadway) evokes conceits or devices successfully used in other musicals. I specifically mentioned the buggy race take of "Ascot Gavotte". I was surprised that there was a noticeable reaction from the cast. Now I see why.... Kevin Massey (a very good Almanzo) fielded my question as to whether the cast or Zambello ever talked about the derivations during the rehearsal period. I swear he said something like, "I have never seen this MY FAIR LADY thing, but....." Interesting. Very defensive. He said that they hope that they have made it their own. I agreed.

The cast, excepting Gilbert at times, was uniformly very good. Kara Lindsay was an ideal Laura. Jenn Gambatese as Mary was warm and sang beautifully what little she was allowed to sing. Much has been made of "I'll Be Your Eyes", the duet for Laura and Mary that closes Act 1. It is only lovely in comparison with the rest of the mess of a score. It does not sore when the audience begs it to...over and over. One musical motif that perplexingly seems to repeat over and over is one about going faster and faster. At the performance I saw, the program insert listing the songs lists it as "Faster" (what else?) and "Faster II" (there you go). The first one established it (early in the second act) as what I thought would surely be a 'theme' for Laura's courtship with Almanzo. But then "Faster II" inexplicably uses the same theme in Laura's school room in Brewster with the students working up a frenzy about learning faster and faster. Looking back at the insert, I am surprised that there is not a "Faster III", since Mary at the College for the Blind then goes into her own version about getting to visit her family....faster. It all seemed to me to become a mish mash of half baked tunesmithing by the time the curtain fell (...quilt scraps). About half way through the second act I realized that the only thing that I wished would happen faster was the inevitable pairing of Laura and Almanzo so we could all be done with it.
What other MT conceits or devices were used, you ask? One that I saw was a clear attempt to derive the opening number "Up Ahead" that seeks to sum up all of the passion around and against homesteading in the 1800's from FIDDLER's opening sequence. It looked like it could have actually been a performance of "Tradition" for a few fleeting moments, with the men of the cast going through their recitation of the joys of land grants, as I recall. Another lesser derivation was the use of Laura's wedding as the final scene. I did actually think about GUYS & DOLLS for a moment, but realized that we would have needed Nellie (a WOEFULLY misdirected Sara Jean Ford who turns Nellie into such a caricature that it is as if Blondie or Lucy Van Pelt or Miss Hannigan or.....Ursula the Sea Witch!...has suddenly been dropped onto the Dakota prairie) to get hitched as well. If this work goes further, someone should give some thought to that...but who would Nellie marry? Now, I see nothing wrong with copying or building off of brilliant devices of musicals of the past. I would do it too, if I were writing or directing something. Here is just seems to happen a bit too much and with a good bit of dullness...pale derivatives. But it does make for some fun "Guess that device" playing when trying to pass the time (which happens a lot in this show). In that way only, it is sort of like watching a good production of URINETOWN.....but not.

I found Donna di Novelli's lyrics to be often just bad, either missing or forcing several rhymes, especially in Act I. Sheinkin writes what you would expect of such an epic based on a beloved piece of Americana, but she doesn't write what you would expect of Rachel Sheinkin (25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE). Some of the book is so prosaic and rhetorical that I assumed that she must be quoting Wilder herself.

I'll close by sharing my overwhelming thought as I walked up the aisle to leave the AMAZING Guthrie after this epic mess: ', how utterly brilliant Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Frank Galati are....'

Seems Byrd knows of a far superiour musical dealing with pieces of Americana.. I know Esther has been trying to keep a positive outlook on this tuner since its inception. All reviews for the show have been mostly mixed-to-negative, including the aforementioned Pioneer Press' view. I hope for nothing but the best for any creative project, but I doubt this new musical is likely to have a lasting impact on the art form. Right now, though, it looks as if though its negatives far outweigh its positive attributes.

Bummer, man. Bummer.


Joie Mayfield said...

I've seen QUILTERS and it made me think of LHOTP, too. I would like to see it despite a bad review. Maybe that's the Little House fan in me coming out, lol.

Esther said...

Yeah, I know the critical response has been, well, pretty critical! But I'm looking forward to visiting wonderful friends, seeing Minneapolis for the first time and the Mississippi River for the first time! As for Little House, I loved the books as a kid, so I'm still looking forward to it. And good bad or mediocre, at least we'll have fun discussing it afterward!

Joseph Gomez said...

Joie, the fact that you know what QUILTERS is makes me smile. There are plenty of THEATRE QUEENS who don't know that show. Awesome!!

Esther, just know that I would never discourage you from seeing a show. It's always fun to talk about them afterwards (even if they are horrendous [sometimes, that makes them even funner]). Sorry to sound a bit bleak on LHOTP. Can't wait to hear your thoughts!


Copyright © 2009 I Can't, I Have Rehearsal Designed by csstemplatesmarket

Converted to Blogger by BloggerThemes.Net