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Prelude to the Prairie 

Another yule hit from CTC

You may have heard that before the intrepid Ingalls family moved out under the endless blue skies of the prairie, grasshoppers ate their farm in Minnesota. What's probably big news to Little House fans, however, is the fact that this incurably lovable family spent a hard-working winter down in Iowa before journeying westward.

Naturally, there's at least one heartwarming tale to be harvested from the family's sojourn at The Master Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. In this case, namely A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas dramatized by Laurie Brooks, it's a tale that's never been told onstage before -- or in the encyclopedic Little House series. Children's Theatre is one of the first to unearth this fresh Ingalls fable, and it's a fine addition to their already impressive Yuletide arsenal.

But a humble one. There's little scenery on the raked stage at McGlohon Theatre, just a few wooden crates in front of a rustic scrim that vaguely suggests a barn. One of those crates opens conveniently to disgorge some essential props, such as blankets and the holy relics of the Ingalls household: Ma's china shepherdess and Pa's fiddle.

Ma won't display her shepherdess because she's still grieving over the death of what's-his-name, the darling infant brother of Carrie, Laura, and Mary. Similarly, Pa won't play his fiddle because he's working so hard and this hotel doesn't feel like home.

These relics are the twin signals for the requisite happy ending to this holiday idyll, but there are other complications to traverse: rehearsals for the Burr Oak Christmas pageant; and a neighbor boy, limping Johnny Steadman, a malicious prankster who also has a neat sled that Carrie and Laura covet within an inch of their lives.

Ah, but the truly heartwarming element of this Yule ruckus is infused by Mrs. Theodora Starr, the lonely wife of the wealthy town doctor. Her dear bairns have grown up and left for Philadelphia, never to return. So she takes a fancy to Laura and, seeing the Ingallses' financial troubles, asks Ma if she might take Laura off her hands and adopt her.

Having eavesdropped on Mrs. Starr's proposal, Laura anticipates the onset of Christmas with increasing dread. Persnickety elder sister Mary has lectured Laura on the perils of eavesdropping and refuses to hear about the purloined conversation. You'd think that maybe overhearing what your parents plan to do with you might be a special case, so you may experience the urge to throttle the smug, moralistic Mary.

But -- to the relief of morals wardens across Mecklenburg County -- Mary turns out to be right! Good reason for me to feel like throttling Laura Ingalls and Laurie Brooks to boot.

On the other hand, Brooks deftly dispenses enough foibles among her dramatis personae so that they all could use a good shaking at least once. What really keeps the obligatory conciliation compelling is that all the folks we've seen -- both young and old -- have been shown as fully rounded, each with his or her own imperfections and vulnerabilities.

Stage director Dennis Delamar takes infinite care in whipping up this flapdoodle, getting polished performances from the entire ensemble, kids and veterans alike. Just as notably, he gets that tangy mix of attractive and repellent attributes almost to perfection.

Emily Hudson makes a smashing impression in the title role, spunky and achingly affectionate, while Sunny Yarborough admirably sustains Mary's appeal despite her starchiness. I wish Lila Kelso had been a little less irritating as Carrie when Laura came around to pondering a lifetime of exile from her younger sister, but she's a credible little brat. Occasionally, Johnny Steadman's limp went AWOL, but otherwise Stephen Friedrich has the nettlesome neighbor accurately measured.

Even if you've seen the adult cast members many times before, they'll afford fresh delights now at Spirit Square. Whether blubbering over her dead son or pursing her lips at Laura's misdeeds, Catherine Smith is an adorable Ma. Mark Sutton is the softy as Pa, offering counsel and comfort to his "half pint" middle daughter. Lastly, Jill Bloede marvelously combines generosity, propriety, and elite cluelessness as Mrs. Starr -- in the most baroque of Bob Croghan's superb costumes.

Fortunes may be on the upswing at Charlotte Repertory Theatre, where a financial turnaround is desperately needed. They're premiering I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, decking out the cute little Joe DiPietro/Jimmy Roberts musical in holiday finery, and running the merriment through New Year's Eve.I Love You may be the perfect vehicle to change Rep finances from a death spiral. Booth Playhouse was filled to the rafters on Saturday night for the revue's opening, and at intermission director Michael Edwards and interim artistic director Terry Loughlin were joyously predicting an encore sellout for the Sunday matinee.

Onstage, Edwards has nearly equal reason to feel satisfied as his well-drilled corps marches through the treacherous swamps of courtship and marriage. Patrick Brandt makes an auspicious Rep debut, bringing a wide range of comical characters hilariously to life.

How wide? At one end of the spectrum, there's Trentell, a serial killer serving seven life sentences, scaring hesitant lovebirds straight. At the other extreme, Brandt is a radically regressing Dad totally subjugated to his newborn. Brandt even manages to upstage Rep mainstay Brian Robinson with his goo-goo antics. But the ubiquitous Robinson has a couple of sterling moments of his own in Act 2, frenetically contriving to have sex with his wife amid a bawling jungle of domesticity and, later in quiet contrast, celebrating a 30-year infatuation with his spouse.

Yvette McGregor shines throughout the evening, whether soloing as an eternal bridesmaid or, in the concluding sketch, as an elderly pensioner fielding Brandt's pickup attempts at a funeral. The only weak link in the quartet is Heather Powell. Lyrics tend to become obscured in the thicket of her soprano voice, but she nailed the awkwardness of newly divorced Rosie Ritz, amusing yet touching as she makes her very first dating video.

DiPietro's script is fresh and insightful only when we cross into the wild frontiers of marriage. I Love You, You're Perfect is surprisingly flawed and cliched in the clinches of courtship. Act 2, however, is well worth your forbearance.

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