After musical versions of Happy Days and Gilligan’s Island, you would be forgiven for thinking that Little House on the Prairie, starring Half-Pint herself, Melissa Gilbert, might be just another nostalgic trip to a beloved TV show.
A closer look, however, reveals a pedigree few other shows can match. Launched at Minneapolis’ prestigious Guthrie Theatre, Little House on the Prairie (now on tour) is a faithful adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic books, with a gorgeous score by Oscar winning composer Rachel Portman. The show is directed by Francesca Zambello (The Little Mermaid), a renowned opera director.
Dance captain Tony Vierling started the tour after a long association with the Guthrie, including the original production of Prairie last year. He admitted that working with Portman and Zambello can be intimidating at first, but it’s rewarding.
“I love the score – it’s really beautiful. It’s been compared to Aaron Copland. Watching (Portman) work, seeing her at a piano writing away was really thrilling,” Vierling said. He said Zambello is “a strong person and she has very distinct ideas and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, Francesca. Don’t look at me!’ You just don’t know what’s going to happen when you first meet her. And then you start to see how she works and how she works with the actors and it’s amazing.”
Vierling is a self-proclaimed song-and-dance man who has starred in big tap dance musicals like Crazy for You, 42nd Street and Anything Goes. “That’s sort of my genre – I really enjoy that.” Being a “swing” like Vierling requires flexibility and a lot of dedication. “I understudy 10 men’s tracks (roles),” Vierling said. As the dance captain, he’s responsible for teaching choreography to the entire cast and their understudies.
The Salina, Kansas, native went to Iowa State University and moved to Minneapolis after graduation. After a stint in Los Angeles, he returned to Minneapolis for its theatrical environment and because he could buy a house more affordably. He’ll have little time to enjoy his home now that he is part of a new tour. “It’s a little bit of a built-in vacation,” he said, noting that he has family all over the country.
The performer, who resembles a young Anthony Perkins, loves being part of a show that families are enjoying together. “The mothers and grandmothers are coming to see Melissa (Gilbert), but their girls want to see the stories from the books,” he said. “We have a lot of little girls who come dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
His favorite scene is set in the schoolhouse where Laura first meets Nellie Oleson. “It gets a little crazy. Laura wreaks a little havoc in the schoolhouse. The kids are hilarious and sweet and they love what they’re doing so much. And then there’s some stuff in the second act between Laura and Almanzo. The ballads that they sing are just beautiful and I never, never, never get tired of hearing them. The show is sweet and friendly and warm, and it captures the feel of the books so well.”
Little House on the Prairie performs at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe from December 8 to 13. For more information about the tour and future dates and locations, visit the show's official website.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.