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Does Mr Finn's New Musical Spell S.U.N.S.H.I.N.E?

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Does Mr Finn's New Musical Spell S.U.N.S.H.I.N.E?
William Finn's new musical, 'Little Miss Sunshine', based on the 2006 movie has just opened its pre Broadway season in San Diego.

Does Mr Finn's New Musical Spell S.U.N.S.H.I.N.E?

The San Diego Union-Tribune:

"Sunshine" bumps along on warmth, wit
by James Hebert

You won't find the word "badonkadonk" in your classier dictionaries, but rest assured, "Little Miss Sunshine" kicks a bit of it anyway.

The term (slang for "rear end") figures prominently in the repertoire of pageant contestant Olive Hoover, the tiny dynamo at the center of La Jolla Playhouse's bumpy but fun ride of a road-trip musical.

Speaking of kicking things: If it sometimes seems as if musical theater could use a 12-step program to shake its movie-adaptation habit, "Little Miss Sunshine" - whose just-opened Playhouse staging is a world premiere - does nothing to counter that trend. The show is based on the Oscar-nominated 2006 movie about Olive and her freaky, VW-loving family.

But while this "Little Miss" mostly sticks to screenwriter Michael Arndt's basic plot contours, the Broadway all-stars who created the new show - writer-director James Lapine and composer-lyricist William Finn - also devise ways to make the piece their own.

Most prominent is a "10 Steps to Success" thematic conceit that draws on patriarch Richard Hoover's occupation as a C-list motivational speaker. Those steps, with gleefully hokey labels like "Leave Loserhood" and "Say No to Negheads," offer a witty counterpoint to the struggles of Richard and his family (whose own saga might be titled "The Seven Habits of Self-Defeating People").

And yet at length, the "steps" concept becomes a puzzling structural shortcoming, because the writers seem to lose interest in it at intermission. Not until show's end does it reassert itself with, somewhat unaccountably, Step 5 ("No More Sugarcoating").

As "Little Miss Sunshine" eyes the highway to Broadway (note Step 7, "See the Mountaintop"), that element may merit some fleshing-out. While the show's running time of about 2 hours, 40 minutes isn't extravagant by musical standards, the first act also flags a bit, partly because the pieces takes its sweet time establishing the character of Olive (played by the lovable Georgi James), the audience's natural rooting interest.

But there's also plenty to like about the production, starting with David Korins' fetching design scheme, a mix of minimalist whimsy and mid-century modern. His fascination with trapezoids becomes a chief motif, expressed everywhere from the walls of the Hoovers' Albuquerque home to a roadside gas joint (which seems explicitly modeled after a famous one near Palm Springs).

He also makes ingenious use of various-sized VW buses, including micro versions that add a crafty and satisfying illusion of depth when "parked" outside the windows of a house or motel.

Fans of Finn's Tony Award-nominated score for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (which Lapine directed on Broadway) will recognize his playful, almost hiccup-y melodic sense, along with his ear for wordplay in such lyrics as "Have you ever been bussed in the buff in the back of a bus?"

Lapine, a multiple Tony-winner (for the Old Globe-bred "Into the Woods," "Passion" and, with Finn, "Falsettos") who also shared a Pulitzer Prize with Stephen Sondheim for "Sunday in the Park With George," directs with a deft (if understated) sense of comic tone. His characters also are calibrated to guarantee maximum interfamily friction, while still remaining individually sympathetic.

It's only too bad that Dick Latessa's riotously inappropriate Grandpa can't stick around to shake his badonkadonk a little longer. (If you've seen the movie, you'll know why.) Recently exiled from a retirement home, Grandpa serves as dubious mentor to Olive and her sullen older brother Dwayne (Taylor Trensch).

Latessa (a Tony-winner for "Hairspray") makes the most of this raunchy, renegade graybeard. When he utters the words "Do you want to hear my advice?," you can sense the audience warming up those wincing reflexes.

Latessa joins a skilled and seasoned cast led by Hunter Foster as Richard, the glib go-getter first seen hawking his "10 Steps" program at the Albuquerque State Fair. Foster's smooth singing voice matches his character's relentlessly pleasant outlook, but the actor also gets across vividly a sense of a man barely one step from meltdown.

That possibility grows more urgent when the Hoovers find themselves on an impromptu road trip to Redondo Beach, where Olive has been tapped to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.

Richard and his exasperated but ever-supportive wife, Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson), load their beat-up VW bus with the kids, Grandpa and Sheryl's extravagantly troubled brother, Frank (Malcolm Gets), a fallen Proust scholar coming off a bad breakup and a botched suicide try.

Dwayne (portrayed by Trensch with a good sense of the surly) hasn't spoken for 85 days, Sheryl is predicting financial and marital doom, and the three men are taking turns verbally throttling one another, which makes for a road trip as charted by Dante.

One of the best sequences unfolds at a desert inn where the Hoovers put in for the night; it's a trio of songs (the "Motel Suite"?) each sung from a separate room. It's an especially good moment for Thompson (Foster's castmate several years ago in "Urinetown"), who matches a biting wit with genuine depth of feeling.

As Frank, Gets (who did a long stint on TV's "Caroline and the City") comically contrasts a gentle demeanor with an abiding bitterness.

And at the center of this rolling carnival of woe is Olive, brought to life by the unassuming James with a winning sense of the openhearted. She's a perfect foil to the spoiled pageant girls, as played out in the show's abundantly funny climactic scenes, which are a showcase of cheesy chic.

The solid supporting cast serves as a peppy, green-jacketed Greek chorus as well as filling out small but piquant roles. Andrew Samonsky stands out as Frank's catty ex-lover, Josh (though the two have a highly implausible gas-station reunion), among others; Carmen Ruby Floyd gets laughs as a "bereavement liaison"; Zakiya Young is a gorgeously self-involved beauty queen, hosting the pageant opposite Eliseo Roman as the smashingly tacky Buddy Garcia; Bradley Dean makes his mark as a loose-cannon Redondo cop, and Sally Wilfert is the prickly pageant director whom the Hoovers dub "Eva Braun."

Musical director/conductor Vadim Feichtner's orchestra adds rich textures and plenty of zip to Finn's almost obsessively syncopated songs, and Christopher Gattelli's musical staging supplements the Hoovers' footwork with multiple modes of movement (including skateboard, Razor and Segway).

Ken Billington's lighting evokes the full scope of daylight on Western highways, and costumer Jennifer Caprio shows a flair for eye-grabbing (and sometimes eye-stabbing) color.

Here and there the show's comedy misses its mark; it easily could lose the questionable migrants-on-the-run gag, along with the stereotyped, turban-topped counter clerk. Sometimes, too, Finn gets tripped up by the rhythms of his own rhymes, in lines like Frank's reference to Proust ("The point of this sad depiction? / He created a new way of writing fiction").

Mostly, though, the show finds a compelling balance of the bittersweet and the lyrical, with humor that pushes the piece over its more imposing narrative hills.

And when wise Olive sings, "I'll be more than pretty - I'll be OK," someone had better tell Richard: Welcome to Step 11.

x x x x x


'Little Miss Sunshine -The Musical'
by Welton Jones

Life on the frayed edge of the American Dream comes vividly and urgently to life in 'Little Miss sunshine', a new musical by James Lapine and William Finn now finding its feet at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Based closely on the irresistible 2006 film about a game little girl from Albuquerque leading her dysfunctional family to California for one of those creepy pre-pubescent beauty contests, the musical gains considerable depth from Finn’s score, maybe his most satisfying ever. (His best-known work, a trilogy of flaccid art songs distilled into “Falsettos,” a mild Broadway success in 1992, has not aged well.)

Lapine, a frequent collaborator of Finn’s, has set up this book deftly to hold both the songs and their singers without strain, while offering much wry wit. (There’s even a gag about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.) And Lapine’s staging, or somebody’s, is just clever enough to be fun without becoming tedious.

(The uncertainty rises from last-minute tinkering with the billing, which includes a promotion of Christopher Gattelli from “choreographer” to “musical staging by.” Such details are important since they reflect a shift in responsibilities on the creative staff. Since there’s not a lot of dancing here, the new title may mean Lapine is sharing directorial duties. Whatever. It works just fine. If the show moves on, major changes in staging should be unnecessary.)

So what are these nice Finn songs? Some, like “Same Old, Same Old,” are efficient exposition. Others, like the mildly outrageous “Grandpa’s Advice” and the truly smarmy “Too Much Information,” when a reigning beauty queen previews bulimia and plastic surgery for the little girls, are just fun by showing off. But the best of them really do illuminate the characters singing, like “I Cannot Breath,” in which an uber-frustrated adolescent breaks his long silence, or “How Have I Been,” a showdown between two Proust scholars over a hunky grad student.

My personal favorite is “Something Better Better Happen,” sung, just a bit flat with frustration, by the mother of the clan and reprised as an Act I finale with a ravishing woodwind and strings arrangement by Michael Starobin, who does his usual exquisite work throughout. This is one of those moments which justifies the entire concept of dramatic musical theatre.

Essentially, this is a road-trip show, taking place on Interstate 40 between Albuquerque and Redondo Beach. Thus, an old VW bus is seen in about five different-sized versions, the largest of which breaks open to better show the family life therein. The director(s) handle this trickery with nonchalant whimsy, thanks to the designs of David Korins, who also joined with enlightened lighting designer Ken Billington to evoke the endless vistas of the West, from desert to mountains to ocean, with splendidly matched skies and effortless fluidity.

There are six principals, six all-purpose supporters and four little girl contestants in the cast, and every one of them deserves to be a finalist in this sweaty epic of lower middle class yearnings.

Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson play with touching pluck the parents of a family which sure could use a break. He runs inspirational uplift sessions based on the mantra “Refuse to Lose” (words which make a face ugly just pronouncing them) while she grinds out paychecks as a bank teller.

Grandpa, played with infectious brio by the dear old veteran Dick Latessa, keeps getting thrown out of rest homes for excessive raunch; Taylor Trensch scowls fiercely as the sullen son in his 86th day of total silence, reading Nietzsche; and the newcomer is Mom’s brother, in the person of the sadly aesthetic Malcolm Gets, fresh from a suicide try over the boy who left him for another academic exotic.

In this parade of losers, young Miss Georgi James glows like the eternal flame of familyhood, an adorable, unsinkable butterball who has sort of accidentally wins a spot in the finals of the Little Miss California Sunshine pageant, several hundred miles and just a few days away.

Such is her uncontested stature as family treasure that nobody wants her to miss this wretched contest if she really wants in. For assorted reasons, nobody can be left behind. Thus the monumental expedition, which climaxes in a tacky fanfaronade of over-groomed nymphettes which offers costumer designer Jennifer Caprio at last a forum for wretched excess and the excellent supporting cast a chance to discard good taste totally.

The final results, of course, are reserved for the paying customer. Suffice to say that our girl, in her confirmation dress popping the moves taught her by her randy but loving old grandpa, fully justifies the universal adoration she accumulates by the end.

There’s a temptation here to thank Finn and especially Lapine for what they didn’t do. There are opportunities aplenty for bathos and pandering with such ripe material and, indeed, there are such groaners as a little girl asking, “Where is heaven anyway?” as a song cue. But even such a obvious set-up can produce poetry; one of the answers to the question is that heaven is “where people prize what’s weird about you.”
Updated On: 3/6/11 at 08:21 AM
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Looking forward to eventually seeing this more than any other musical that's currently on the horizon. Absolutely adored the movie and the prospect of a Finn score working with that story via a Lapine Book is simply mouthwatering.
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Looks like this musical needs just a bit of oiling, than a major rebuild like other musicals in 'try out', then it seems good to go for this years Autumn or spring next year.
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I have a feeling that after the success of the charm-fest that is Spelling Bee, people seem unready to cut William Finn slack with what looks like it could potentially be a lazy commercial choice.

I'm not entirely convinced by what I've seen and heard, but I love Bill Finn's work and hope this lives up to his earlier shows.
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I hope this fulfills its promise. We could use another quality piece from Finn and Lapine. Especially since this is basically a mish-mash of work they have done before, Falsettos, Romance in Hard Times (the only other musical I can think of with a "mute"), and Spelling Bee. They are in danger of being lazy and relying on familiar ingredients, but let's hope inspiration propels Sunshine into a class of its own.
With Irma you gotta do something!
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'Little Miss Sunshine -The Musical'
La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, San Diego
492 seats
$100 top

by Bob Verini

A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by William Finn, and book and direction by James Lapine. Choreography, Christopher Gattelli; musical director-conductor, Vadim Feichtner; sets, David Korins; costumes, Jennifer Caprio; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; music arranger, Will Aronson; production stage manager, J. Philip Bassett.
Opened Mar 4th, 2011.
Runs through Mar. 27.
Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min.

Olive Hoover - Georgi James
Richard Hoover - Hunter Foster
Sheryl Hoover - Jennifer Laura
Thompson Frank - Malcolm Gets
Dwayne Hoover - Taylor Trensch
Grandpa - Dick Latessa

The sun shines throughout "Little Miss Sunshine," but the necessary darkness is absent. La Jolla's musicalization of the 2006 movie, launching a hoped-for eastward road trip, boasts David Korins' brightly cartoony designs and a typically tinkly William Finn score. Yet no one seems to have noticed how Michael Arndt's Oscar-winning saga of a young girl's odyssey to pageant immortality is fueled by anger, its family dysfunction the product of devastating disappointments. Unless and until librettist-helmer James Lapine raises both stakes and heat, this tuner will remain a limp retread of robust source material.

Hewing closely to the pic, Lapine sends the quarrelsome Hoovers from Albuquerque to Redondo in a vintage VW bus propelled, like Fred Flintstone's sedan, by feet. As road signs whiz by, daughter Olive - relaxed, natural Georgi James, the show's most winning component by a country mile - plays car games while pondering whether she's too pudgy for success.

Her psychic baggage is trumped by that of her relatives. Sullen teen Dwayne (Taylor Trensch) hates the world. Melancholy scholar Uncle Frank (Malcolm Gets) recently slit his wrists for love of a student. Coke-sniffing Grandpa (Dick Latessa) is always inappropriate, while matriarch Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson) just wants to keep it together until husband Richard (Hunter Foster) can redeem a string of failed careers as a self-help guru.

The movie's bus is a pressure cooker primed to explode. But unaccountably, the tuner takes every opportunity to soften and "humanize" characters whose power, as Arndt was careful to define, actually derives from arrant narcissism. Lapine tamps down the conflicts to mere bickering, summoning up sentimental musical numbers to turn the characters all cuddly and blunt their edge.

Comparisons are generally odious, but when so much effort has been made to Xerox-copy the pic's superficial characteristics, surely it's legit to point out the machine is low on toner. In the face of Foster's hapless simp and Thompson's bitter scold, sorely missed are Greg Kinnear's reservoir of fury and insecurity as Richard's world topples, and Toni Collette's earth mother roaring. Latessa's gentle underplaying is welcome, but he's a salty dear where Alan Arkin was a truth-telling irritant.

Concessions to musical comedy tropes further dilute the material. The plot demands we see Richard's "Ten Steps for Success" as banal and his dream a delusion. But when it's introduced in an exultant opening number by a sextet of eager disciples hawking mail-order books and sweatshirts, it seems like a done-deal moneymaker. So much for Richard's desperation to sell his Refuse to Lose system to a distributor, nominally the inciting factor in the family's tailspin.

Those six choristers prove useful in taking on all the subsidiary roles, but they're written in cliched shorthand: East Asian convenience store operator; bulimic beauty queen; Gauleiter pageant director; horny Scoutmaster. The heart sinks lower with each stale caricature.

In the end, that which played as outrageous on film - the purloining of a corpse out a window, for instance - just sits there on stage, affectless. Even Olive's turn to shine on the runway with her family, a moment you'd figure couldn't miss, falls short. James is terrific, but since each Hoover has already had a sentimental life-changing epiphany - Richard's, a particularly wrongheaded musical memorial to Gramps - there's no surprise or lift in their decision to cut loose.

The finale, Step #5 on Richard's list, is entitled "No More Sugarcoating." Good advice.

With: Bradley Dean, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Eliseo Roman, Andrew Samonsky, Sally Wilfert, Zakiya Young, Felicity Bryant, Sophia DeLange, Madi Rae DiPietro, Kishka Grantz.

x x x x x

The Los Angeles Times

'Little Miss Sunshine -The Musical'

by Charles McNulty

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.

This 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 catch 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.
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There's an interesting discussion on the ATC board about whether or not it's too soon to musicalize something like Little Miss Sunshine which is still fresh in everyone's mind as a movie. I tend to think it is too soon.

Among the many reasons Love Story worked so well is that the original book and movie are pretty much ancient history for most of the audience. It gave the creators of the musical a certain freedom that William Finn and James Lapine do not have with Little Miss Sunshine.
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