Melissa Gilbert in Little House Musical Weighed Down by Pioneer Garb

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"I'm losing my voice on opening night," a raspy sounding but energetic Melissa Gilbert said in a whirlwind interview with Hair Balls this morning. (Hey, we were allotted five minutes and think we stretched it to seven or eight.)

Gilbert, clearly the audience draw for the musical version of Little House on the Prairie The Musical (brought to Houston by Theatre Under the Stars), has gone from playing the young "Laura" on the 1970s TV show where never a song was sung, to playing "Ma" on stage across the country (They're hoping for a little time on Broadway as well, she said.)

Despite taking on previous stage roles, this is the first time Gilbert had sung professionally on stage, although she said she's been singing for years and did some "silly variety shows" in the '70s and '80s. Asked why she took it on, she laughed and said: "They asked me to. They made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

She added that she ran into Tommy Tune in Houston Tuesday, here for his recent awards program, and he told her he never knew she sang and that if he'd known "I would have used you years ago." She said she would have welcomed that; that it would have been a lot easier for her to do at half her present age (in a week she'll be 46).

Saying the Little House stories are timeless, she said the musical resonates with modern day audiences: "In 1973 our nation was in the worst recession we'd ever seen and now here we are.

"We start with nothing on stage and build the house and the town whole."

Gilbert's 14-year-old son is in the cast in his first professional role and she said she told him before they started out that "I am not your mommy unless you're hurt. You're going to have to do it on your own." She said he has thrived at the experience and still hasn't asked her any questions; he's figured it out for himself.

The hardest thing about being on the road -- they end the tour in June -- is her separation from her husband, actor Bruce Boxleitner, and her other three sons. "Every Monday night we always have dinner together... My husband would say the heart of the house is gone."

Asked what's next in her career, Gilbert said she never knows. "I sort of fly by the seat of my pants." She sets goals for herself -- she determined that she would learn to play drums and surf by the time she was 40 and did that. Her next self-imposed challenge: to learn how to fly by 50.

The worst glitch she's ever had in a performance: she came down with pneumonia when they were playing Madison, Wis. "I was drowning and I couldn't breathe." She made it through to intermission, but at the break she went on to the hospital while her understudy took her place on stage.

Hair Balls checked out the pioneer costumes hanging in the Hobby Center hallway and asked Gilbert if they weren't kind of heavy? "Heavy!" she exclaimed. "I have one dress I refer to as the sofa. It's literally upholstery." Add to that the petticoats, tights, shawl and wig she has to wear as Ma, and it makes for a pretty warm ensemble, she said. While this was fine in Toronto in winter, it's a little tougher in places like Houston in late April.

But she's found an upside. Right before she went on tour, she'd had a personal crisis and was deeply depressed. Like a lot of folks, she comforted herself by staying home and eating a lot of mac and cheese, with the result that she showed up in New York with a Rubenesque figure.

Since she's been in the show with all the movement she has to do onstage in that heavy clothing, "I've dropped three to four pants sizes. Yesterday I was in a bikini in public."

Little House on the Prairie runs through May 9 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Ticket information is available online at TUTS.com or at 713-558-3882.

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