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Laura's memories
Mansfield community recounts the stories of famous hometown author

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by Erin Stubblefield

During the grand finale of the dress rehearsal, the entire cast playing the Ingalls family, including Almanzo, ends the performance with a bow. For 20 years, the community of Mansfield has performed "Laura's Memories," a musical about hometown author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Men garbed in bib overalls and women in their prairie dresses hold hands, dancing to the tune Pa plays on his fiddle, while the younger ones savor the warm maple syrup at Grandpa’s log cabin.

And that’s only one of Laura’s memories from this Little House on the Prairie production.

Ozark Mountain Players (OMP) in Mansfield has featured just one musical for two decades. But what started out as a modest production has matured into a pageant-like performance fueled by the community and viewed by an international audience.

This fall, the production company celebrates the 20th anniversary of “Laura’s Memories,” a musical that shares the memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, known for writing the famous “Little House” series of eight books based on her pioneer life.

Wilder lived 60 years of her life in southern Missouri and considered Mansfield her home. Her Missouri cottage is now preserved as a historical museum, and “Laura’s Memories” is another way the community continues to honor their famed pioneer.

Nellie, played by Bailey Adams, glares at her brother Willie, who stole her hand mirror. Bailey has been in the production for four years, making it easy for her to slip into character on the first night of dress rehearsal.

Staying true to the books and time period, playwright Terry Spyres of Springfield fleshes out the stories and memories told by Wilder in the “Little House” collection and includes much of the original dialogue Wilder penned in her books.

“The television series took a lot of liberties, but I wanted this to be more authentic,” she says. “I need to stay true to Laura.”

Spyres admits to taking some freedoms with Harriet Oleson, the store owner’s haughty wife, to show more of the character’s pompous nature and to add humor to the production.

The outdoor drama, powered by Se-Ma-No Electric Cooperative, has attracted a worldwide audience, including a group from Japan, which visited Mansfield to see the homestead of the Little House author and main character in the popular TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

But there is also a more loyal following. An Amish community from northern Arkansas has seen the show mature since its beginning. They travel to Mansfield every year on a pickup bed trailer pulled by a tractor.

The OMP fills the amphitheater with as many as 500 people each Wilder Day, and as a commemoration to the show’s long-running success, the non-profit production company will honor former cast members at each summer and fall performance.

Viewers watching this season’s rendition will walk through Wilder’s childhood years, opening with Grandpa’s Dance, the famed story of making maple syrup from the first book “Little House in the Big Woods,” and ending with Laura and Almanzo Wilder moving to their Mansfield home.

Corbin Allen, Jordan Hodges, Conner Johnson, Wyatt Rau, Hunter Brinkley and Dylan Hodges play tug-of-war before the school scene. While the farmer boys are in every scene, they are featured in a song and dance, inspired by Wilder’s book Farmer Boy, before the show.

The upcoming production has 80 cast members from the community and surrounding areas, many of whom include entire families who have grown up with the show. One cast member is a grandma with her two daughters and six grandchildren in the show. Luke Johnson of Mansfield, who produces sound effects and sings in the pre-show quartet, started as one of the farmer boys 18 years ago. Today, his 8-year-old son fills the role.

“Laura’s Memories” is set in the 1950s, where Wilder recollects her childhood memories as an adult. Over the years, the performance has been restructured several times.

Spyres and music composer Pat Allen originally wrote the script and songs for the musical when Spyres, new to the Mansfield community at the time, realized Wilder lived her remaining years in the southern Missouri town.

As longtime fans of Wilder’s books, the drama duo decided to write a musical featuring their favorite scenes from the Little House collection.

The two worked side by side, playing off each other’s ideas, and in a month, the musical was finished.

After losing their beloved dog, Jack, on the trail to their new home on the prairie, Laura and Mary Ingalls pray for his return as their younger sister sleeps. The role of baby Carrie is double cast, so during the dress rehearsal, both girls were on stage and out of costume.

“It only had four scenes,” Spyres jokes. “It was so short we had to pad it with pre-show entertainment.”

Grandpa’s Dance was in the original script, and the show ended with the revival where Almanzo begins courting Laura.

The immediate success of “Laura’s Memories” prompted Spyres and Allen to expand and perfect the production. Throughout the years, they rewrote and added scenes to introduce more characters, such as Harriet Oleson, but, more importantly, they wanted to bring Laura and Almanzo back to Mansfield.

Spyres worked on the musical’s dialogue and structure, and Allen contributed to the composition of songs that both filled the new scenes and featured vocally skilled cast members.

“We utilize all our talents,” Allen says. “Our cast has grown tremendously over the years, and we tweak or add things each year depending on our cast, the person we would like to feature or the song or verse we would like to add for them.”

Johnson, who has been involved in all but the first two performances, attests to the musical’s growth. “Every couple years, they come up with something new to add to the play,” he says. “It’s more of a production than it was in the beginning.”

He even remembers setting up square bales, which served as the seating for each performance, on the hill side several years ago. Now, the production is hosted in an amphitheater, including custom-built bleachers, constructed specifically for the show.

Directors Terry Spyres, Cindy Lawson and Pat Allen discuss the opening scene before the start of dress rehearsal. With 20 to 30 cast members on stage at simultaneously, planning is vital to the flow of the production.

Allen and Spyres provided the framework for the production, but the show’s opulence is a community-wide effort. For the playwright and composer, it’s a family affair.

With the help of costume designer Dot Hudson of Mansfield, who sewed most of the prairie girl dresses, all cast members perform in authentic, pioneer wear. Seamstress Donis Elliott also has patched and designed costumes, while her husband, Floyd, Duke Dunbar and Jeffery Hutchens built the bleachers at no charge.

The director’s family members have been involved in musical production since the beginning. Allen’s son, Eric, wrote the song Laura sings on the trail. Spyres’ husband directed “Laura’s Memories” the year the two women took a break, and her three children filled various roles and helped with the production’s development by writing songs or suggesting new scenes.

Spyres remembers her son, Sean, suggesting that she write another school scene for the performance. Her daughter, Erica, helped her write Mrs.Oleson’s song about Nellie.

But no matter their role, the community members connected to the musical have a different attachment. For Sean Spyres, who returns for the 15th year to play Alamanzo, the songs in the musical foster a nostalgia. For OMP Publicist Phillip Bennett, “Laura’s Memories” is a tribute to the valued community member of whom he met years ago.

“I can’t say enough about this community,” Bennett said. “We couldn’t have this show without them.”

Show details: Performance Dates: Aug. 6, 7, 13 and 14; Sept. 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18. Begins at 8 p.m. Wilder Day: Wilder Day is Sept. 18. A special matinee performance will begin at 3 p.m. Admission: Adults (12 and over) $7 and children (5-11) $3. Directions: The amphitheater is located next to the ball park and elementary school on Ohio Avenue. Contact Info: 417-924-3383; www.laurasmemories.com

Erin Stubblefied is Rural Missouri's 2010 summer intern.

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