Brilliant Staging of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: The Musical

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: A World Premiere Musical. Book by James Lapine, Music and lyrics by William Finn. Base on the 2006 film written by Michael Arndt. Musical staging by Christopher Gattelli and directed by James Lapine. La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse Place, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, CA 92093-5100. (858) 550-1010 box office or visit online Running time 2hrs 30mins with intermission.


The latest transformation of a movie to a stage musical is Little Miss Sunshine the Academy Award winning sleeper hit of 2006 receiving its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. The credentials of all involved are impeccable including the book /direction by James Lapine and music/lyrics by William Finn. The multiple Tony Award winning stage successes of Lapine are legion including Into the Woods, Passion, and Sunday in the Park with George. His collaborations with Finn go back to the 1992 long running Falsettos and directing Finn's Tony Award-nominated score for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

To give the show a better chance to make it to Broadway they have imported top-notch equity actors including 10 year old Georgi James from the Billy Elliot cast. She, as Olive Hoover, is perfect for the part of the catalyst that initiates the fateful road journey molding the dysfunctional Hoover clan into a symbiotic family. You need not have seen the movie to enjoy this charming production that builds on, and utilizes much of the original text with Finn’s utilitarian/tricky songs that seamlessly carry the plot line. Following an obligatory rousing opening number fashioned after a hand clapping church gospel with Richard Hoover (Hunter Foster) and ensemble praising the “Ten Steps to Success”, the curtain raises on a stunning set (David Korins) with the family bemoaning their humdrum lives in song with “Same Old, Same Old” not suspecting that the immediate future will be more than the same old-same old.

Unsuccessful motivational “10 Steps to Success” guru Richard is surrounded by an unhappy wife and bread winner Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson), rebellious teenage son Dwayne (Taylor Trensch) who refuses to talk wants to be a test pilot, raunchy Grandpa (Dick Latessa) who snorts cocaine has been kicked out 4 nursing homes and depressed uncle Frank (Malcolm Gets) a Proust scholar who has attempted suicide after being rejected by his boyfriend Josh (Andrew Samonsky). Then there is bubbly, energetic Olive who has backed into the Albuquerque regional “Little Miss Sunshine Pageant” winner’s circle (There were only three contestants and one had a club foot!). She has been practicing her dancing “moves” (more about that later) under the loving tutelage of Grandpa. Circumstances are such that all members of the clan (not quite a “family” yet) have to travel in the aging yellow VW Bus to Redondo Beach California where the finals are being held.

If you think Voltaire’s Candide had problems on his journey, wait until you see what befalls the Hoovers beginning with the VW that will only start in second gear thus requiring the non-drivers to push the Van to get started. The VW is an integral part of the story line and scenic designer Korins has created an ingenious Bus-Van, run by foot power of the occupants with elevator seats to bring each cast member into view. Lapine’s staging and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography are fantastic and are the highlights of the show.

All the cast deserve accolades, with great singing, dynamic stage presence and good comic timing. Hunter Foster brings to life the internal conflict of a man with unfulfilled dreams as he refuses to lose. Jennifer Laura Thompson as the wife Sheryl trying to keep the family on an even keel is equally adept at displaying her conflicting emotions. Latessa’s Grandpa expertly ranges from scatological to lovingly understanding with believable characterization. Trench as the troubled Dwayne silently displays his turmoil and is stunning in his rage upon discovering his color blindness will prevent him from obtaining his dream. Malcolm Gets gives a superb performance as the former suicidal lover meeting Josh and Larry Sugarman (Bradley Dean) the new lover in a heart tugging scene in song “How Have I been?”

That episode is a deviation from the storyline that follows the movie script. Other notable background deviations are characterizations for Grandpa (a lecherous encounter under a street lamp) and a scene of Richard and Sheryl losing their virginity in “Back of the Bus.” The ensemble teams are very capable stage hands moving props and setting flats as well as being accomplished actors who each have a turn in the spotlight. They include Bradley Dean, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Eliseo Roman, Andrew Samonsky, Sally Wilfert and Zakiya Young.

And at the center of the continuing turmoil is Georgi James as Olive the innocent who becomes a believer in her ability and beauty when Grandpa sings “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” All this leading to a riotous episode when Olive performs her bumps and grinds displaying the “moves” learned under Grandpa’s tutelage! It is a hysterical finale.

Why then is the total concept less than satisfying? Probably because there are frequent “dead spots” that detract from brilliant staging such as a memorable motel scene and Eliseo Roman (as Buddy Garcia) and Zakiya Young (As Miss California) singing Little Miss Sunshine at the tacky competition. The second act opening “At This Point in Our Journey” is a whirlwind of very funny antics with the ensemble cavorting pell mell across the stage on roller blades, skateboards, Segway, motorized wheelchair etc. You get the impression that the authors recognize that the audience needs pumping up after a somewhat expository 75 minute first act and they devised a comic circus scene just for that purpose.

Even with the caveats just mentioned, Little Miss Sunshine: The Musical is well worth seeing but will not be the blockbuster of the little movie that could and did become a creative and financial success.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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