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Once Laura Ingalls, Gilbert now plays Ma

Melissa Gilbert is well-known to fans of "Little House on the Prairie" for her portrayal of  spunky Laura Ingalls. But at Minneapolis' famed Guthrie Theater, she's now portraying Laura's demure Ma, Caroline.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Melissa Gilbert has finally come home to the prairie — or at least to the big city near the prairie. She has yet to sink her feet into Plum Creek, next to the dugout where the real-life Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in the 1870s.

Gilbert, who spent most of her childhood portraying the bold pioneer girl on television, is cast as the proper and reserved Caroline “Ma” Ingalls in the Guthrie Theater’s musical version of “Little House on the Prairie.”

She sings. She dances. She teases out Ma’s wild side. Previews started Saturday, and the show opens Aug. 15. Advance ticket sales have broken the theater’s record, and the run already has been extended an additional two weeks to Oct. 19.

The role sent the 44-year-old actress back to her “Little House” books for a fresh take on material she first dug into at age 9, underlining in crayon.

When it comes to Ma, Gilbert told The Associated Press last week that she sees “a whimsical loss” in the family matriarch — glimmers of a headstrong girl tamed by life.

“There’s the girl she used to be that she sees in Laura,” said Gilbert, who played Laura on TV from 1974 to 1983 and now has two sons and two stepsons. “But she has to be able to model how to find a way to be satisfied with the life that’s ahead of her. There were no other choices for women back then.”

On television, Gilbert grew up in Walnut Grove, Minn., the setting of the book “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”

In real life, she has yet to visit any of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood homes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Kansas or Iowa. The TV show was shot in Simi Valley, Calif. The red-haired actress first came to Minnesota in February to start work on the musical and set fingers pointing when fans recognized her in Laura Ingalls Wilder territory.

Road trip to Plum Creek?Gilbert wants the Guthrie “Little House” cast to pile into a van and visit Walnut Grove, about three hours’ drive west-southwest of Minneapolis. “I think I need to put my feet in Plum Creek,” she said. “I think that would be a moment for me.”

It would also be a moment for Walnut Grove, where Amy Ankrum, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum there, said that nearly 1,000 fans turned out earlier in July to see Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, the twins who played Laura’s younger sister Carrie on TV.

“I can hardly imagine what kind of a crowd Melissa would bring if they knew she was coming,” said Ankrum, who grew up in Walnut Grove reading the books and watching “Little House” on television. She and 14 others are planning to see the musical in September.

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Anticipation is high for the first major new interpretation of “Little House” in a quarter century, with fans lining up last month for tickets. Gilbert is performing alongside Steve Blanchard as “Pa” and Jenn Gambatese as Laura’s sister Mary. Newcomer Kara Lindsay plays Laura.

Gilbert said she wasn’t sure at first that austere stories of family life in the 1870s and 1880s would work as a musical, but the script and score won her over. Rachel Sheinkin wrote the musical, with music by Rachel Portman and lyrics by Donna di Novelli. It’s directed by Francesca Zambello, who guided “The Little Mermaid” to Broadway last season.

Gilbert’s next challenge was singing. Though she grew up loving such musicals as “Gypsy” and “Annie,” she didn’t share her mother’s confidence in her voice. Still, she worked with a vocal coach and it came together.

Zambello said Gilbert’s name came up as a potential Ma once the musical was written.

“Of course, her connection to the material was fascinating,” Zambello said.

After Gilbert worked on her singing, she asked Zambello to come listen to her. Gilbert said she wanted Zambello’s approval before joining the cast. The director said Gilbert had raw talent but needed to work on her technique.

“You’re always looking for actors who offer multiple layers to roles,” Zambello said. “She was interested and had never been in a musical. It was a big challenge for her to rediscover the stories but from a completely different angle.”

Gilbert reveals details of Ma’s past in “Wild Child,” a song that leads into the show’s finale. Her Ma stands on equal footing with Pa, who lifts and twirls her as they dance.

“There are references to Ma not being all that prim and proper,” Gilbert said. “It’s a much different relationship than it was in the television show. ... The relationship between Ma and Pa is much sparkier. In pictures they’re always touching.”

The Guthrie production won’t be the first musical based on the “Little House” books.

“Laura’s Memories” has been performed for about three decades in Mansfield, Mo., where the author settled with her husband and daughter and wrote her books. That musical covers Laura’s life from early childhood to starting her own family, and it draws crowds every summer.

“It’s not only the history — it’s the wholesomeness of it,” said Becky Dierksen of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield. “And I think that these days, that’s kind of hard to come by.”

Gilbert, who lives in the Los Angeles area, has been staying with her 12-year-old son on a lake near Minneapolis this summer. The actress said she has invited other cast members over to barbecue and watch movies, although she nixed a screening of old “Little House on the Prairie” episodes. (“Oh no. Ouch.”)

Newcomer Lindsay said that she, too, wanted some distance from the TV show so she could create her own Laura. She said Gilbert has refrained from giving her advice on the character.

“I think it would make it uncomfortable,” Lindsay said. “She’s trying to discover Ma and I’m trying to discover Laura, and she’s just letting me do that.

“She’ll just be there to nod her head and encourage me. She doesn’t push anything on me at all.”

Gilbert’s return to “Little House on the Prairie” is also feeding into an autobiography she plans to publish next year. She said memories of the TV show and colleagues such as Michael Landon have come flooding back during rehearsals; tears have followed. She exchanged e-mails with Karen Grassle, the TV Ma.

In fact, Gilbert — who has had a steady career in TV movies since her “Little House” days — said she never tried to escape being identified as Laura, except during a brief coming-of-age period when she yearned to establish herself as an independent young woman (not unlike the struggle Laura went through on TV). She played the character from ages 9 to 19.

“How horrible can it be to be remembered for something that’s beloved and iconic?” she said.

“It’s not all of who I am, but it’s part of who I am and it’s part of my history, too. I can’t really deny it.”