TAMPA — Musical theater 101 says that the narrative of a show must reach a point where the characters can do nothing else but burst into song, but that never really feels necessary in Little House on the Prairie. Oh, maybe when Charles "Pa" Ingalls belts out an aria to the prairie, or when Laura Ingalls pledges that I'll Be Your Eyes in a ballad to her blind sister, Mary. But the songs are so generic that you have a hard time remembering them a few minutes later, much less after the show, when you should be humming them.
The soporific serviceability of the Little House score (music by Rachel Portman, lyrics by Donna di Novelli, book by Rachel Sheinkin) is a shame, because the musical has been given a marvelously simple, effective staging by director Francesca Zambello and scenic designer Adrianne Lobel. This is a production that diehard theatergoers will want to see for its inventive stagecraft, if not its musical drama, which never drew more than polite applause in Tuesday's opening at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
The diminutive Megan Campanile is charming as Laura, the spunky, fresh-faced tomboy who has to grow up fast when she becomes a one-room schoolteacher to make money so Mary can go to a school for the blind. Later, as Laura Ingalls Wilder, she would write the beloved children's books upon which the musical is based. Campanile is teamed with the Laura of the 1970s and '80s, Melissa Gilbert, the adorable "Half-Pint" of the TV series, now playing Caroline "Ma" Ingalls, matriarch of the South Dakota frontier.
There are nice moments in the relationship of Ma and Laura and the other Ingalls girls, Mary (Alessa Neeck) and the scene-stealing little one, Carrie (Carly Rose Sonenclar), and that is precisely the rationale of Little House on the Prairie as a piece of musical theater. Much like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the TV series, the musical is firmly aimed at a very specific audience: mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters. Kate Loprest plays Laura's nemesis, Nellie Oleson, as a homespun version of the bratty Glinda from another girlish tuner, Wicked. Menfolk may be excused if they take a pass, as quite a few appeared to do Tuesday after intermission.
As the lone male on the Ingalls homestead, strapping Steve Blanchard is a suitably stout-hearted Pa, waxing sentimental in his songs to hearth and home and the endless Western sky, putting down his shotgun and taking up his fiddle from time to time as Ma and the girls dance a jig. Campanile in particular is a snappy dancer, but she and the rest of the cast don't get much chance to cut loose in Michele Lynch's tightly stylized choreography, with herky-jerky movement that resembles tai chi.
Kevin Massey plays Laura's beau, Almanzo Wilder, and his performance incorporates the clever concept of the actor holding long reins attached to the floor to represent driving a buggy or sleigh with a team of horses. It's one of many artful touches in the production, such as having cast members move around props and scenery to create various settings — farmhouse, church, general store, schoolroom, a wagon train — as a metaphor for the pioneers having to build their new world on the prairie.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.