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Theater review: 'Little Miss Sunshine' at La Jolla Playhouse

March 6, 2011 |  3:09 pm

Little miss sunshine 1 
LA JOLLA -- Theater people, if you’re going to borrow a story, make sure it’s a good one. The ancient tragedians looked to Homer; Shakespeare, more omnivorous, would regularly dip into Ovid and English history. Contemporary musical theater artists, on the other hand, keep turning to lightweight movies for inspiration or, more cynically, box-office juice.
At least “Little Miss Sunshine,” the latest in the ongoing rush to recycle yesterday’s films into tomorrow’s Broadway gold, has a winning tale to tell. The show, which had its world premiere Friday at La Jolla Playhouse, closely follows the 2006 indie sleeper about an unraveling Albuquerque family that manages to pull itself back together through a daughter’s cockeyed dream of winning a children’s beauty pageant in faraway Redondo Beach, Calif.

The movie’s mix of dark and light — the bitter, almost nihilistic humor counterbalanced by an innocent sparkle — was the source of its curiously potent beguilement.  And that combination goes a long way toward making this stage adaptation agreeable even though the production’s shortcomings are impossible to overlook.

Little miss sunshine 2This new version of “Little Miss Sunshine,” written by the Tony-winning team of James Lapine and William Finn (whose collaborations include “Falsettos” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”), doesn’t always seem convinced that it should be a musical. And the narrative journey of Michael Arndt’s Oscar-winning screenplay isn’t so much rediscovered as reiterated. But it’s hard not to want a show with such a charming plot to succeed, even though it’s clear early on that the odds of this happening are about the same as Olive’s chances of taking the crown in the kiddie contest.
Logistics aren’t the issue. The challenges of staging a road picture are handled with winking ingenuity. The broken-down VW bus — with doors and a roof that easily detach for maximum visibility — is like one of the characters chugging along through hard times. A remote-control toy version of the vehicle and plenty of prankish Arizona highway signs help convey a sense of giddy motion on David Korins’ larky set. 

True, there’s not much opportunity for choreographer Christopher Gattelli to break out the fancy footwork until the talent portion of Olive’s competition (and even then the dancing fails to take flight). But the problem isn’t slick moves — it’s the way the whole shebang has been packaged as a more obvious knockoff of the original.

The characters’ quirks and dark sides are laid on thick from the beginning. Instead of allowing the audience to make discoveries about the Hoover family, Lapine’s book and direction italicize what makes each and every member so disturbingly unique. In the film, the camera selected what it wanted us to see, thereby doing much of the heavy lifting of the comedy. The actors were free to play their roles more or less realistically while the peculiarities of the household wryly piled up. Onstage, the domestic dynamics are presented as a series of giant billboards.

Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson), dishing out chicken in a bucket after her day of bank-teller drudgery, supports her family while her husband, Richard (Hunter Foster), gambles their security on a self-help system he’s hoping to cash into a book and infomercial. (Richard has concocted a series of “steps for success,” but he’s flirting with becoming a middle-aged failure himself.) The resulting marital tension has taken a toll on the couple’s two children: Dwayne (Taylor Trensch), the Nietzsche-obsessed son who morosely refuses to speak, and Olive (Georgi James), the open-hearted daughter whose self-esteem seems as though it could at any moment be torpedoed by cruel reality.

The main cast members are appealing (especially the younger ones), but they hit their marks too squarely. No one wants exquisite subtlety from gruff, dirty-mouthed Grandpa (Dick Latessa chomping on the role that won Alan Arkin an Oscar). But does Thompson have to broadcast Sheryl’s weariness so emphatically? And what’s with the dopey wig Foster dons in the hippie flashback scene that’s been cooked up to give a glimpse of Richard and Sheryl in happier romantic times?
Much of this could be fixed with some fine-tuning of the script and staging. For example, when Uncle Frank (Malcolm Gets), the gay, lovelorn Proust scholar, arrives with bandaged wrists after a botched suicide attempt, must he enter with his arms held aloft as though exhibiting himself for an elementary school show-and-tell?  Gets, a solid musical theater pro whose moonlit voice is put to good use in “How Have I Been? and “Suffering,” doesn’t need smoke signals to communicate heartbreak.
The score cries out for a more complete overhaul. Finn isn’t writing songs so much as musical sketches.  These talky numbers of his — mostly extended characterizations and dramatic exchanges —  are reminiscent of “Falsettos,” except “Little Miss Sunshine” is far less melodic. The production at times seems like a play with occasional orchestral enhancement. When it all comes together, as in the death-haunted reprise of “Something Better Better Happen” that closes the first act, the show achieves a moody life all its own. But these are flickering moments in what still seems like a choppy work in progress.

One musical element that should theoretically add more pep (even if it doesn’t quite make sense) is the choir of graduates from Richard’s class who parrot in song tenets from his program. Given Richard’s floundering situation, this cult following is far-fetched. But the troupe of singers, who play multiple incidental roles with cartoon abandon, sets up bubbly possibilities that unfortunately aren’t exploited with much individuality or consistency. 

Despite all the drawbacks, the show oozes theatrical potential. The actors are indeed copycatting, but they’re a natural blend. The musical routines lack kick — especially Olive’s pageant showstopper, which strangely fizzles — but Finn is at least groping toward something genuinely dramatic rather than the usual cheap razzle-dazzle.
Oh, why not just admit it? I’m a sucker for Olive’s story: the awkward duckling whose loving naivete  convinces her family to lay down their misery and embrace their feelings for one another. James doesn’t supplant the memory of the movie’s Abigail Breslin, but there’s a perky ray of sunshine with gawky eyeglasses and a cautious smile brightening a musical that simply needs more time to bake.


'Little Miss Sunshine' musical sheds new light on family

Spring arts preview: Theater

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“Little Miss Sunshine,”La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 27. $53-$100. (858) 550-1010 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Photos: Top: Jennifer Laura Thompson, Malcolm Gets,  Georgi James, Hunter Foster and Taylor Trensch. Bottom: Dick Latessa and James.  Credit: Craig Schwartz/La Jolla Playhouse