Little Miss Sunshine on Bumpy Road to Pageant Finish
*This is a Guest Review by Allie Dufford who recently attended the World Premiere of the Little Miss Sunshine musical in California.
A favorite onscreen comedy, Little Miss Sunshine made its stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego on March 4 after running previews since February 15th. The show follows the Hoover family as they road-trip in their VW Van from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA to get youngster Olive Hoover to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in time. Behind the creative aspect of the new musical are popular duo William Finn (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (direction and book) best known for their work on such shows as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Falsettos, and A New Brain.
The talent doesn’t stop with the creative team; joining Finn and Lapine are the familiar Broadway pair Hunter Foster (Urinetown, Little Shop of Horrors, Million Dollar Quartet) and Jennifer Laura Thompson (Urinetown, Wicked, Footloose) who take the stage together once again, but this time as the humorous and slightly dysfunction Richard and Sheryl Hoover, parents of Olive and Dwayne Hoover, played by Georgi James (Billy Elliot, A Tale of Two Cities) and Taylor Trensch (Spring Awakening 1st National Tour). Two characters not to be forgotten that finish off the family tree are Grandpa Hoover and Uncle Frank played by Broadway veterans Dick Latessa (Hairspray, Promises, Promises, Follies) and Malcolm Gets (Amour, A New Brain, Merrily…along).
A prominent memory I have from the movie is how well written, portrayed, and hilarious the characters were, and this all-star cast does an incredible job at bringing everyone from Abigail Breslin to Steve Carell’s original portrayals to the stage. The relationships that the audience witnesses between the members of the Hoover family are everything from comedic to heart breaking, and touching yet extremely entertaining.
In addition to the noteworthy cast of family members, a small ensemble of six joins the cast of “Little Miss Sunshine.” This group is reminiscent of a Greek chorus, as they follow the family on their trip, and also fill in small roles such as Miss California, Josh (Uncle Frank’s ex-lover), Buddy Garcia (the host of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant) just to name a few. The idea of a Greek chorus caught me off guard, and I feel almost detracted from the story because the family members were so strong. Having the ensemble narrate every so often wasn’t extremely necessary, but I’d be interested to see how that aspect of the show developed in the journey to Broadway.
In a master class at Wagner College with William Finn, he expressed that his musical skills lacked when it came to writing opening numbers, and he felt that the only opening number he was confident in was the opening number from “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Unfortunately, I think that the opening to “Little Miss Sunshine” may fall in the lacking category. The song wasn’t bad, but it didn’t have the ‘oomph’ that most opening numbers are expected to have. Hunter Foster did a fantastic job of keeping the audience engaged and entertained as he covered the stage explaining his “10 Steps to Success” (which is also the name of the song), however I felt it didn’t introduce the show well. On the flip side, I’m not sure what would introduce the show well, considering it is a movie made musical it may not have grabbed the audiences attention to open the show any other way. My suggestion: go with the original screenplay, open the show with Olive sitting watching a pageant on TV, and then cut to the “10 Steps to Success,” we’ll see what they decide to do!
Throughout the first act I enjoyed the music that highlighted the Hoover’s trip to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, but I can’t say that I remember any of the melodies. I can however say that I absolutely loved the script, and I found the scenes were way more memorable than the songs. In an interview with Finn and Lapine, Finn stated that he didn’t spend more than 30 minutes on each song because he wanted them to be very simple, which I think was revealed in the show, and may be the reason that the scenes outshined the songs.
One sequence that did stick out in the first act was a series of three duets that occurred in the different motel rooms that the family stays in over-night. The sequence captures each relationship quite nicely, Sheryl and Richard share a serious moment as adults, while Grandpa and Olive discuss the ‘Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ (who Grandpa claims is Olive), and Uncle Frank laments to Dwayne while Dwayne remains silent.
One aspect of the show that they were successful at accomplishing was the difficult task of creating a musical that was able to travel. By that I mean, in the movie we know that they are traveling in a VW Van from New Mexico to California, which is easy to show in a movie, but not quite as easy onstage. However, the set included moving traffic signs that gave the illusion that they were driving, as well as many other realistic road situations such as a cat moving in front of the car causing them to swerve, bike riders passing by, and much more.
At intermission I discussed with my parents (who don’t know too much about theatre as far as performing or creating goes, but are well-rounded theatre goers) that the show thus far needed some more work before it could take the road to Broadway, which is a likely journey of shows that premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse (Memphis, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and many more). We all agreed that we could only remember a tune or so, yet the story and the characters seemed to be flawless.
The second act began, and I already had high expectations for this act as I was anticipating Dwayne’s big number “I Cannot Breathe” which would initially break his 85-day vow of silence- I was expecting a showstopper. This number came and I thought it was very good. Taylor Trensch is extremely talented, with a powerful voice perfect for angsty Dwayne, but the song wasn’t a showstopper. I thought it reflected the scene in the movie well, but it could have been so much bigger, and interestingly enough it seemed to be written in a minor key, reflecting the discomfort that Dwayne was encountering. The scene preceding it included the family’s attempts to convince Dwayne, who is unwilling to listen, to continue their trip to Redondo Beach. Olive crosses the stage, sits next to him, places her hand on his back, leans her head onto his, and stays there for a long moment without saying a word; the silence is broken when Dwayne apologizes for his actions and agrees to continue on the trip. I can picture this moment so vividly because I remember thinking how rarely in musical theatre is a long moment that ends with such resolve (especially between a young brother and sister), it was incredibly touching.
The next most memorable part of the show was the highly anticipated talent portion of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, in which Olive shows off her ‘badonkadonk baby’ in “Olive’s Moment.” In the movie, Olive does a provocative dance to ‘Superfreak,’ but Finn wrote a whole new song for the show, and it’s just as good and inappropriate as ‘Superfreak.’ Olive strips from one outfit to another, sings about her ‘badonkadonk,’ shows off the dance moves Grandpa taught her, and is joined by the rest of her family in a moment of family bonding on the Little Miss Sunshine pageant stage. The show resolves all of the family’s issues within the last ten minutes of the show, as expected, and the Hoovers return home the same dysfunctional family they left as, just with a little more love, compassion, and tolerance for each other.
Little Miss Sunshine has some work to do before it sets it’s sails for Broadway, but I think the adjustments that need to be made are quite obvious and the show will eventually be a huge hit. I was able to speak briefly with William Finn after the show, where I told him I attended his master class at Wagner College and had a great time, and the show was very enjoyable, he thanked and appreciated my compliments. I did enjoy myself very much and am excited to see this show take a turn for the best. I hope the cast remains the same, as they were a huge part of why the show was so pleasurable, and not to mention they are extremely talented. I praise William Finn and James Lapine for taking such a risk in adapting a well-known, popular movie into a friendly musical, and I have faith that their efforts will double now that they know they have something that can and will make it big.
Little Miss Sunshine will continue to play at the La Jolla Playhouse in Mandell Weiss Theatre through March 27th, 2011. The musical features music and lyrics by William Finn with musical directed by the book writer as well James Lapine. Fore more information, visit La Jolla Playhouse’s Official Website