Writer: James Lapine
Music/Lyrics: William Finn
Director: Mehmet Ergen
Designer: David Woodhead
Musical Director: Arlene McNaught
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Little Miss Sunshine is a sort of jollier Grapes of Wrath for the 21 st century. The hint is there in the family name “Hoover” – the Joads in Steinbeck’s classic spend time in squalid Hoovervilles, named for President Hoover. The journey in Little Miss Sunshine is shorter, though the destination is similar; the family is much smaller, though equally diversified, but the physical failures of man and machine afford parallels. The biggest parallel, however, is family: Joads are Joads and the dysfunctional Hoovers have no choice in the end but to function – as a family.
Little Miss Sunshine – A Road Musical is more directly sourced from the 2006 film written by Michael Arndt. The Hoovers of Albuquerque, New Mexico, are an eccentric foursome with two added complications. Richard, the father, has lost his job and committed himself to developing a self-help programme which he believes (wrongly, of course) will lead to fame and fortune. His wife, Sheryl, has to cope with no income and a houseful of oddballs, but she is no Ma Joad, dealing with the present; she prefers to panic about the future. The teenage son, Dwayne, refuses to speak and is obsessed with Nietzsche and becoming a test pilot and Olive, the much younger daughter, has her heart set on competing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California. Just to complicate matters, Richard’s father has been living with them since being kicked out of his retirement home for drug abuse (sex comes pretty high on his agenda, too) and Sheryl’s brother, Frank, a college professor, is finding a safe harbour after slashing his wrists at losing his lover, a male graduate student.
When Olive gets her place in the Little Miss Sunshine competition, the whole family set off in the family’s aged Volkswagen van. The first half is amiably engaging. Most of the things that go wrong are fairly trivial and the family we are supposed to be shocked by are all palpably nice people. The simple set, with the van little more than three rows of chairs, is more suited to the off-West End ambience of the Arcola where the production began than to substantial old-style theatres. William Finn’s songs are seldom memorable melodically, but the words are clever, appropriate and often witty, and his long and experienced partnership with James Lapine ensures that the songs are absorbed very skilfully into the main text.
Things turn with an unexpected shock to coincide with the interval. What could have moved the play towards tragedy moves it instead towards farce and amusing encounters with the rules-and-egos-bound forces of conventional society. Then the actual competition itself is huge fun, though one episode with Richard and his conscience is an unnecessary reminder of the play’s underlying earnestness.
Mehmet Ergen’s well-paced direction keeps a grip on reality – until the pageant – and avoids stereotypes of, for instance, the dirty old man and the gay Proust scholar, Mark Moraghan and Paul Keating both excellent as Grandpa and Frank. Gabriel Vick and Lucy O’Byrne are totally convincing as the central couple – and Lapine is careful to make sure each, in turn, makes sense – and Sev Keoshgerian sulks splendidly as Dwayne before exploding into a riot of expletives and insults.
Sophie Hartley-Booth (or Evie Gibson or Lily Mae Denman – undoubtedly all are equally good) is terrific as Olive, wonderfully assured, with an incredible ability to hold the stage. And a mention for Ian Carlyle and Imelda Warren-Green, an irresistible comic twosome in hospital and on stage.
Touring nationwide | Image: Richard H Smith