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I couldn't say for certain if the four characters who sing the opening number in the new William Finn/James Lapine musical are Jewish, but, as in one of the pair's previous collaborations, they're certainly in a room bitching.

Review:  LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Lowers The Bar"The key to contentment is to lower the bar," sings a member of the under-achieving Hoover family in the new musical based on the indie film Little Miss Sunshine. And, given the past teamwork from composer/lyricist Finn and bookwriter/director Lapine (Falsettos, A New Brain, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), audience members could be forgiven for expecting more from this sluggish effort; especially after that opening number, "The Way Of The World," so cleverly garnishes it's bright, peppy melody with sage advice like "Underestimate everything" and observations from experience like "You will certainly fail." Sadly, that's just one of the scattered times when the evening hints at the brilliance of its creators.

Richard Hoover (Will Swenson) is on the verge of bankruptcy if his new book doesn't get published and his wife, Sheryl (Stephanie J. Block), has been busy keeping care of her brother, Frank (Rory O'Malley), a Proust scholar who recently botched a suicide attempt after a bad breakup. Their son, Dwayne (Logan Rowland), can't wait until he's old enough to get out of the house and has taken a vow of silence until he can start flight school. Richard's dad (David Rasche) is a crusty lecher who was kicked out of his nursing home for recreational drug use.

Little Olive Hoover (wonderfully geeky and big-voiced Hannah Nordberg) recently placed 2nd in a regional pre-teen beauty pageant (There were only three contestants.), but the winner's last-minute unavailability means she can compete for the title of Little Miss Sunshine if she can make the trip from their New Mexico home to Redondo Beach, California by the deadline.

Review:  LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Lowers The BarCircumstances demand that the entire family make the trip together and the only mode of affordable transportation available is the beat-up family van, represented by wheeled yellow chairs the actors maneuver by foot. A mechanical failure forces the crew to periodically get the engine started by having everyone push and then making running leaps into the vehicle. These moments serve as cute bonding moments but a huge problem with the musical is that the authors never develop enough empathy to make us care for the Hoovers as a family. Solo ballads for Swenson and Block fall flat because the book - loaded with uncharacteristically clunky scenes - never gets revved up.

In his previous musicals, Finn's wit shined when he wrote for educated and intelligent urban characters, but he rarely has a handle on the simpler folk of Little Miss Sunshine, save for O'Malley's smarmy pessimist. Rasche's solo about his love of having all kinds of sex stands out for its outlandishness.

A Greek chorus of glitzed-up and glamorous tykes who taunt Olive for her lack of fabulousness is a clever addition but once we finally get to the pageant, the tackiness and inappropriateness of the event doesn't register hard enough to get the intended laughs, though Nordberg works hard to make Olive's oversexed talent portion work. She definitely earns the tiara in this one.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Hannah Nordberg and Will Swenson; Bottom: Alivia Clark, Hannah Nordberg, Josh Lamon and Victoria Dennis.

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