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BWW Reviews: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at the La Jolla Playhouse

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The La Jolla Playhouse is presenting a world premiere musical based on the 2006 Academy Award winning film "Little Miss Sunshine".  While the show had its shining moments and a cast that matched the subtlety and charm of the original sleeper hit, on the whole it needs a bit of a jump start if it's going to make it down the road to Broadway.

The story centers on the Hoover family who has seen better days.  Richard (Hunter Foster) is just trying to make ends meet for his family while keeping his dream alive of being a successful motivational speaker with his "10 steps for success" along with his wife Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson) who is just trying to keep her family together.  A family that includes Sheryl's brother Frank (Malcolm Gets) who has just lost his job, been dumped by his boyfriend and has his own demons to work out; Grandpa (Dick Latessa) who has been kicked out of his fourth nursing home; and the kids, the silent and morose  Dwayne (Taylor Trensch) and the optimistic and energetic Olive (Georgi James).  So, when Olive is suddenly tapped to participate in the children's beauty pageant, Little Miss Sunshine, the family piles into Grandpa's bright yellow Volkswagen van to make a road trip from New Mexico to California in the hopes to not only help Olive win the crown but also repair their broken family.

With a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by William Finn, you'd think this quietly charming story would be a no brainer.  The problem is that the winning moments while lovely are surrounded by moments that tend to wallow in the subtlety of the piece.  The opening number for example should have got all of us on board with this family but instead we were regaled by Richard's mediocre life steps.  It was a song that really didn't grab us or tell us what we were in for and failed to kick off the story as it should.  That tone of mediocrity kept going throughout right up to the unfortunate final moment where they inexplicably felt it necessary to sing the title of the show.  Like I said, there were moments that shown through but not consistently enough.

The cast does manage however to shine in those moments.  Foster is likeable as the misguided Richard who should spend less time fixing other's lives and more fixing his own.  Latessa makes the cantankerous Grandpa as loveable as he can be and completely sells his "Grandpa's Advice" number.  James is adorable as the unlikely beauty queen and the well known finale from the movie is even more wonderfully disturbing with the new lyrics.  Trensch infuses his silent troubled teen with layers upon layers of emotion which makes his emergence even more powerful.  Thompson adds a delicate grace to the Mother and her "Something Better Better Happen" almost had me in tears. Gets is glorious as the ultimately damaged Frank and had one of the best moments of the show with his jaded confrontation "How Have I Been?" 

If that dream team of a cast wasn't enough, Finn and Lapine wisely gave each of their hysterical ensemble members a moment in the sun.  Bradley Dean, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Eliseo Roman, Andrew Samonsky, Sally Wilfert and Zakiya Young each took the small parts they were given and ran with them, almost right out of the theater as each of them brilliantly played the comedic relief to the family's "straight man". 

With an ingenious scenic design from David Korins and some amazing staging by Lapine and Christopher Gattelli, this should be a sure fire hit.  Unfortunately, to use a car analogy, the show started off in first, stayed in second for the majority and kept stalling out just like its iconic yellow van, forcing the cast to give it little push to get it back on the road.


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Jay Irwin Born and raised in Seattle, WA, Jay has been a theater geek for years. He attends as many shows as he can around the country and loves taking in new exciting works.

Instituting a new three letter rating system for my reviews for 2014. They'll range from best to worst as WOW (A can’t miss), YAY (Too damn good), MEH+ (Good, with some great things going for it), MEH (Just OK), NAH (You can miss this one) and WTF (I think you can figure out my complex code there).

Jay is also an actor in the local Seattle scene. Follow me on Twitter @SeattleBdwyGeek


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