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A CurtainUp Review

The Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show by Elyse Sommer

The new Melting Pot Theatre Company has given New Yorkers a delightful treat: a stirring musical drama with a catchy country western style score and a multi-talented cast. It should appeal to anyone from age 7 or 8 on up. The Portable Pioneer And Prairie Show follows the saga of Kristina and Lars Andersson who leave Sweden for a better life in America. Their story is brought to life in the form of a traveling wagon show by their daughter and two sons, two of whom play the parents.

The players depict the trajectories of the Anderssons with songs, some dances and fragments read from diaries and letters. Everything is impressively woven into an emotionally engaging whole, with several of the key numbers reprised, not because of a shortage of good songs-- (the program didn't include a song list so we lost count)--but because they serve as a leitmotif for the indomitable spirit that enabled these people to tap their own resources and rebound from loss and failure and move forward. The end is known at the beginning, yet you forget its inevitability as you get caught up in the story so that when it arrives you are achingly surprised.

While the Anderssons are a fictional family, Mel Marvin and David Chambers who developed the book and lyrics in the 1970s on a commission by the Minnesota Guthrie Theatre, drew their portrait from research about actual traveling wagon entertainers such as the Hutchinson family. Under Lori Steinberg's capable direction the road show concept works beautifully to reenact the Andersson's decision to leave Sweden, their voyage to America and the farmlands of Minnesota, their struggles to adapt to a new land and language and their move beyond loss to a new life as professional entertainers. The shifts in the characters are seamless-- Karin and Paul into their parents; the Swedish pastor into a hard-drinking Shakespearian actor; and a Swedish proselytizer for emigration into the full-of-charm promoter and chief magician of the road show that becomes the Andersson's unplanned for way of life. The balance between poignant moments and sheer fun and entertainment is perfect. The scene when the Shakespeare troupe and the Anderssons finally blend into a musical melodrama company is hilarious and Johnny Slade's audience-participation magic act serves as the just right prelude for the dramatic climax.

The cast assigned to play all these parts is up to the task and then some--doing full justice to the ensemble as well as solo parts. And as if that weren't enough, Leenya Rideout, (Karin/Christina Andersson), Sean McCourt, (Paul Andersson) and Samuel D. Cohen (Johnny Slade), are terrific and versatile instrumentalists. Each of the instruments that are part of Ann Keehbauch's simple but effective set is played and played with Also contributing towards the pleasures of this musical gem, are Sue Candy's attractive and appropriate costumes and Debra Dumas' effective lighting. of this musical gem, are Sue Candy'sadmirable competence. Also contributing towards the pleasures attractive and appropriate costumes and Debra Dumas' effective lighting.

The program notes sum up the producers' aim to produce three or four shows a year that will reflect New York City's cultural diversity. Their current play sends us on a historical look back at the immigrant experience of a family with European origins. Their next play, in June, will reflect the African-American experience. One of the plays under consideration, From the Mississippi Delta, would probably be especially timely since it would coincide with Simon & Schuster's June release (with national promotion) of Dr. Holland's memoir.

Let's hope that the politically correct word watchers' police won't get down on them for naming themselves the Melting Pot at a time when the preferred metaphor is to depict America as a mosaic or salad bowl in which according to sociologist Carl N. Dengler "the lettuce can still be distinguished from the chicory, the tomatoes from the cabbage." The still frequently used melting pot image actually derives from a 1908 play of that name by Israel Zangwill which in Act 1 states: "America is God's Crucible, the great Melting Pot where all races of Europe are merging and reforming". Were Zangwill writing today, he would undoubtedly change the last part to "people from all over the world."(The quote and comment about the melting pot metaphor is taken from Metaphors Dictionary edited by this reviewer with Dorrie Weiss

For those not familiar with the Riverside Church Theatre, it should be noted that this is one of the most attractive and comfortable venues in Manhattan and worth traveling the few subway stops beyond the main show biz thoroughfare. The Columbia Univerity neighborhood is lively, and full of inexpensive ethnic restaurant, including the original Ollie's Noodle Shop right at the 116th subway station.

Book by David Chambers
Lyrics by David Chambers and Mel Marvin
Directed by Lori Steinberg
With: Leenya Rideout, Andersson), Sean McCourt, Samuel D. Cohen
Set: Ann Keehbauch
Costumes: Sue Candy
Lighting: Debra Dumas
Theatre of the Riverside Church by David Chambers
120th St. & Riverside Dr. (212) 279-4200
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
The Broadway Theatre Archive

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