“Is that Charlotte?” I ask the young girl clutching a rag doll.
She unfolds her arms to reveal a bonnet-clad doll with flaming red hair. This, obviously, is not Charlotte.
“It’s her version of Charlotte,” the girl’s mom tells me. I smile at her and her daughter, the little girl with braided pig tails, dark brown eyes and manners so polite she could be Mary Ingalls, even though she looks more like Laura Ingalls.
We—this woman and her daughter and me and my oldest daughter—have come to downtown St. Paul on a Sunday night in October to see Little House on the Prairie The Musical at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Many years have passed since I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books to my two girls. But I still remember Charlotte, Laura’s beloved rag doll.
As Amber and I await the beginning of this musical set in Dakota Territory in the 1880s, we listen to foot-stomping fiddle music, catch a glimpse of a bonneted Laura look-alike and take in the stately Landmark Center, The Saint Paul Hotel and Saint Paul Central Library that ring Rice Park across the street from the Ordway.
I’ve never been here before and I am impressed with the town square feel of the block, by the gracious doorman (who obliged our request to snap a photo of us), and by the welcoming atmosphere of this elegant theater.
As we circle our way to our second floor box seats, I wonder aloud whether I’ll be OK sitting so high above the main level. I settle into my chair and tell the usherette that I am comfortable. She has kindly offered to move us elsewhere.
Later, my daughter and I regret that we didn’t ask for different seats. “Can you see?” we whisper to each other all too often. The man sitting next to Amber has scooted his chair forward in this snug box and sits with his elbow on the railing, head upon hand. I know Amber can’t see much, but she is more concerned about me. Our chairs face the opposite side of the theater, not the stage, so our view ranks as merely adequate even though our tickets cost $63.50 each.
Eventually, Amber tells the rude patron that she can’t see and we are happy when he and several others fail to return after the second act. “He looked bored,” Amber says. I agree.
This show is anything but boring. On stage, a high-energy cast, through song, dance and drama, re-enacts the story of the Ingalls family, who left their Minnesota home to stake a homestead claim near De Smet, S. D.
“I don’t remember that from the books,” I think all too often. But later, when I am home, I dig out my daughter’s Little House books. There, right there in print, are the stories of the Ingalls sisters getting kicked out of school, the story of Mrs. Brewster drawing a butcher knife, the tales of nasty Nellie Oleson who did, indeed, move from Walnut Grove to De Smet. I had forgotten so much.
The creators of Little House on the Prairie The Musical admit to deviating from the books to tell an entertaining story. Yet, they have not strayed as much as I initially thought.
Of all the scenes, I find the one involving the knife-wielding Mrs. Brewster to be the most powerful. The lonely homesteader’s wife pleads with Laura to quiet the howling winter wind. As the drama unfolds, it is clear that Mrs. Brewster’s isolation on the prairie has driven her into a deep depression, near to insanity. “The wind was like knives,” Wilder writes in Chapter 7, “A Knife in the Dark,” in These Happy Golden Years. Now, as I read those words and reconsider the dramatic scene on the Ordway stage, I understand.
Producers of the musical also got it right with simplistic sets that focus mostly on the vast sky. The sky backdrop changes often—from dark and brooding to the brilliant orange of a sunset to the blue skies of summer—just like the southwestern Minnesota prairie sky I knew as a child. I grew up near Walnut Grove, the Minnesota childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
And I grew up knowing the Little House books, which an elementary school teacher read to my class. I never watched the 1974 – 1982 television series starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura because I was busy then with college and launching my career. At the Ordway, Gilbert plays Ma “Caroline” Ingalls. I was not star-struck as others may have been by her appearance. Nor was I impressed by her singing.
And this may sound really picky, but Pa “Charles” Ingalls and the other men were clean-shaven, not something I would expect in the 1880s. That little detail bothered me—a lot.
Tickets are still available for Little House on the Prairie The Musical, which runs through Oct. 25. Go to www.ordway.org. Also check out Laura Ingalls Wilder attractions in Walnut Grove at www.walnutgrove.org and in De Smet at www.desmetsd.com. Both towns feature summer pageants.
© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling