BWW Review: Young Stars Brighten LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
Based on the bittersweet, 2006 sleeper hit of the same name, Chicago Theatre Workshop's Chicago premiere of the musical LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE appropriately wears its heart on its sleeve.
The book by James Lapine faithfully follows the film's plot about the struggling middle class Hooper family who all pile into grandpa's old VW van to set out on an ill-fated odyssey to keep the family together and just maybe have awkward Olive win a beauty pageant crown.
Composer William Finn ("Falsettos" and "A New Brain; the latter which will be featured next season at Theo Ubique) enjoys a cult of faithful musical fans not unlike Sondheim. You are not likely to leave humming anything, but the score is bouncy, poppy and emotional charged when it needs to be.
Frankly, it isn't Finns best work and it's no surprise the show never found a life on Broadway. There are some character-driven songs that make it ideal for companies like Chicago Theatre Workshop, though. If you count yourself a fan of Finn, you'll want to check it out.
The draw here is most definitely its young cast (both of whom are insanely talented). Funny, charming and possessing a powerful voice that seems incongruous with her diminutive body, Sophie Kaegi proves her recent 2016 BroadwayWorld Chicago award was no fluke. As Olive, she hits all the right comedic notes and turns in a heartfelt performance while highlighting the lovable quirks of her character. Much like her character and her family, Kaegi is the glue that is holding the entire musical together. Her solo "Shake Your Badonkadonk" is an outsider's anthem of pride. Try not to smile during it. I dare you. Kaegi's performance is a sheer delight.
As her Nietzsche-loving, angst-filled teen brother Dwayne (who has taken a vow of silence), Kyle Klein II also does a terrific job expressing thoughts and feelings without words for much of the show. When he finally does crack (the cathardic reprise of "I Can't Stand It Anymore"), it is such a hopeless, sad moment that instantly becomes touching when Kaegi grabs his hand and rests her head on his arm. It is a surprisingly real moment A reminder that, if we are lucky, we always have a support network of family that love us unconditionally no matter where life's van takes us.
As down-on-his-luck, unemployed would-be author and father Richard Hooper, Greg Foster also hits the right emotional notes, particularly with the tune "What You Left Behind," which finds Richard trying to make sense of a death while examining items in a box of personal belongings.
George Keating also turns in a solid performance as the emotionally damaged Uncle Frank. The song, "How Have I Been?" in which Frank runs into the young man who dumped him and the former beau's much older new boyfriend, reminds one of some of the back-and-forth songs in "Falsettos." Connor Baty perfectly captures the vapid, opportunist nature of Frank's former lover and David Besky is also perfectly smug and cocky as The Man who stole Frank's boyfriend. The trio is a delight.
As porn and drug-loving Grandpa, Ken Rubinstein turns in a rough and weather performance that is appropriate for the character. Trouble is: this is a musical. And while we wouldn't expect someone who lives as hard a life as Grandpa to have the voice of an angel, Rubinstein's vocal work is a bit too jagged in "The Reason You Don't Talk" and thus the song doesn't have the show-stopping effect it should have as it was written.
As the over-worked and under-appreciated mom Sheryl Hoover, Sharyon A. Culberson's acting performance is also fine, but her vocal work on the night I caught the show was pitchy. Composer William Finn is known for producing scores that challenge singers. Culberson earnestly conveys the sentiment behind her big number "Something Better Better Happen," and here's hoping after a few performances under her belt that her voice steps up to the challenge of the score.
Despite these few musical missteps, the production is humorous and heartfelt, thanks in part by some stellar performances from is younger cast members. Fans of the movie are probably expecting nothing more.
Chicago Theatre Workshop's production of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE runs through June 4 at The Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway. Tickets $32.50-$42.50. www.chicagotheatreworkshop.org or 773.999.9541