BWW Reviews: La Jolla Premieres a Bright LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
The 2006 movie dramedy Little Miss Sunshine was and still remains such a low-key charmer that to attempt to simulate it on stage with music is at once challenging, courageous and perplexing. Why? Why retell a story that is so perfect on film unless you can achieve a brand new and interesting take on it? I guess Spider-Man and other films being translated to the stage is the rage these days, especially when there's a dearth of original musicals. All this aside, the production values, the cast and the very artistic endeavor of the stage musical Little Miss Sunshine, now at the Mandell Weiss Theatre of La Jolla Playhouse through March 27, should be lauded and appreciated.
On film Grandpa and Olive have a special relationship that is somewhat shortchanged in the stage version. Grandpa (played wonderfully by Dick Latessa) and Olive (a splendid Georgi James) do their best with really only one scene between them, and even that is cut shorter than the film's corresponding scene. More interplay should be created as this is the one sterling association from start to finish. As far as the other characters are concerned, book writer James Lapine stays faithful for the most part to Michael Arndt's Oscar winning screenplay. Some slapstick in moving Grandpa's body is cut as is the pageant judge's revenge at the end to make time for other more substantial plot elements.
It is quite remarkable how the actors simulate the movement of the traveling van around the stage, using mostly footwork. Six chorus-like characters, who represent Richard Hoover's 10-Step Program, move road signs in and out to signal the distance traveled and David Korins' background set of outdoor landscape changes subtly as clouds roll by and day turns to night. This is all a terrific technical achievement that makes the trip seem completely credible.
The cast, utilizing director Lapine's fluid and ample staging, are all top-notch. Hunter Foster is driven and unrelenting as Richard Hoover manipulating the behavior of just about everyone except rebels Grandpa and Dwayne (Taylor Trensch). Trensch is touching in the scene where he reacts to being colorblind, as he leashes out at the family he finds impossible to live with.
Jennifer Laura Thompson is a marvel as supportive wife and mother Sheryl who somehow manages to hold it all together for better or for worse. Malcolm Gets as Uncle Frank is equally outstanding as he fights to retain his dignity and self-worth. The six supporting chorus players are all superb in their various characterizations. Carmen Ruby Floyd as 'play.by.the.rules' nurse Linda, Eliseo Roman as pageant host Buddy Garcia, Andrew Samonsky as Joshua, Frank's despiccable former lover, Zakiya Young as Miss California, who has an eating disorder, Sally Wilfert as nasty pagenat judge Nancy Jenkins and Bradley Dean as Larry are tops. Praise as well to the adorable little Miss Sunshine contestants.
Someone expressed disappointment that there's not a great big sparkly dance number between Miss California and the little contestants, but this frankly is not a show for choreography. It is a quiet, little play about the subtle changes within a dysfunctional family; its story is the most urgent consideration. So, maybe it doesn't really fit into the category of a big Broadway musical, or musical at all, for that matter. William Finn has composed some lovely songs but they do nothing to improve or enhance the storytelling. I'm getting back to my original statement that Little Miss Sunshine is better suited to the screen, in spite of the tour-de-force acting and singing from the stage ensemble and the superlative behind-the-scenes creative team@ La Jolla. Check it out, nonetheless!