Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Prairie Home Excursion

Theater Review (and Mini-Travelogue)

Little House on the Prairie: The Musical
Overture Center, Madison, WI

Yesterday I took a ride up to Wisconsin's capital, about 2-1/2 hours away, to see a new musical version of Little House on the Prairie. I had read pretty good notices about it when Minneapolis' acclaimed Guthrie Theatre debuted it in 2008, and although it has been touring the country since last fall, it doesn't appear that it will hit Chicago, or Broadway for that matter, anytime soon.

So although I never read any of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and can't recall ever watching the TV show, I am enough of a musical theater aficionado to make an excursion to see it. The show's cast is headed by Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura in the TV show and plays Ma here. Now in her mid-40s, she still looks good but isn't a great singer, which worked fine as Laura is really the central character in the musical, and the actress who played her (Kara Lindsay, pictured with Gilbert below) sang quite well.

With the caveat that unlike most musicals I see in Chicago and elsewhere, I did not go into Little House with any familiarity with the music (i.e. there is no cast recording), I thought it was enjoyable and pretty much achieved its aim as a tuneful, family-friendly musical, but was a good bit shy of fantastic. A day later I can barely remember any of the songs, which while pleasant, didn't seem remarkable. Although for most folks it wouldn't necessitate a road trip of any length (although now over in Madison, it will play Appleton in March), it was actually better than several other musicals I've seen. Case in point, Blood Brothers has been running for 20 years in London; I saw it in April with an ecstatic audience and hated it. My friend Paolo just saw it the other day and concurred that it was nothing special. Little House on the Prairie is much better than that.

Although I think Madison is fairly enjoyable, especially for a day trip, I didn't have much time for much sightseeing yesterday. Which was fine, for as you can almost see below, even from a block away, the beautiful state capitol could hardly be seen on a foggy, overcast day.

Thus, no visits to see any Prairie-style houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, who grew up about an hour from Madison and has several works in and around the city (although mostly later-career and not Prairie style). If you do go on a nice day, be sure to check out this one, among others, as well as a nifty FLW-designed church.

Before the show, I did have time for a quick visit to the Chazen Museum of Art on the University of Wisconsin. The admission was free and hopefully will remain that way after the addition now being built is finished. The collection isn't spectacular, but worth a look. Though very few paintings were by artists I had heard of, the museum had several good examples of paintings that were similar to those by famous artists.

For example, the works below might suggest that they are by El Greco (or Zurbaran), Caravaggio and Mondrian, but they aren't, but rather by others painting around the same time (whose names are unfamiliar to me and likely most casual art lovers).

Finally, although I undoubtedly could have found somewhere good to eat in Madison's downtown area near the Capitol and new Overture Center (where I saw the play), I opted to head out of downtown and find (after 3 tries) a place I couldn't help but notice on my way into town: Ella's Deli.

While both my Pastrami Reuben and Noodle Kugel were solid but not special, I really enjoyed the kitschy decor, which included all sorts of weird & wacky displays. Click to enlarge the photo below to get a better sense of what I'm talking about, but it's probably better appreciated in person. Though it really only dates back to 1976, it feels like one of those places that has been around since way back when. I'm glad I stumbled upon it.

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