Little Miss Sunshine: A Road Musical – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Book: James Lapine

Music and Lyrics: William Finn

Director: Mehmet Ergen

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

The Hoover family is one dysfunctional family. As the programme notes suggest, while the characters may seem to have little in common they are glued together by that single familial bond. Olive Hoover is the youngest family member. She’s bullied at school and harbours dreams of being the first Miss World from New Mexico. She’s being tutored in that ambition by her Grandpa Hoover who lives with the family now after being expelled from his retirement home for heroin abuse. Her teenage brother, Dwayne, sees becoming a pilot as his escape route from the family, though how taking a vow of silence until he achieves that is expected to help isn’t entirely clear. Olive’s Uncle Frank, a renowned academic, is recuperating from a suicide attempt after a relationship went disastrously wrong. Olive’s father, Richard Hoover, is possibly the world’s worst self-help guru, but who is blind to his own failings. And at the centre is Sheryl, Olive’s mother and the real force holding the family together.

As the show commences, Olive unexpectedly has the opportunity to take part in a junior beauty pageant – Little Miss Sunshine in California – and so the entire family set off in Grandpa Hoover’s venerable VW van to cover the 800 miles to the pageant. Along the way, each has to confront their own demons. Will this trip cement them firmly as a family, or destroy them?

It’s a familiar set-up and there are few surprises as the story unfolds. The central characters are well-rounded and increasingly believable, despite their at times surreal aspects. In particular, it’s easy to empathise with Sheryl (Lucy O’Byrne) as she tries to hold the family together and to provide a rational voice. In flashback, we see the seeds of her discontent with Richard (Gabriel Vick), while in the present, O’Byrne brings us Sheryl’s increasingly troubled outlook. One can’t help but like Grandpa, played with glee by Mark Moraghan. Grandpa’s hedonism could make for an unpleasant character, instead Moraghan shows his warm side as he supports Olive in the only way he knows. Sev Keoshgerian brings us Dwayne. There are some lovely moments of comedy when he needs to communicate but his vow prevents him, his physicality perfectly encapsulating his teenage angst. Of the adults, Uncle Frank (Paul Keating) is maybe the easiest to empathise with as he struggles to mend his broken heart.

Of course, at the centre is the bundle of energy that is Olive, played at this performance by Lily Mae Denman. Her ups and downs are clear – her joy at spending time with Grandpa, as well as flashbacks to the bullying she receives from the mean girls (Alicia Belgarde, Elena Christie and Scarlet Roche) and its impact on her self-esteem. Her father’s well-intentioned pep-talks are supremely ill-judged and help to show the workings inside her young head.

At the periphery are the supporting characters played by Ian Carlyle, Matthew McDonald and Imelda Warren-Green. While director, Mehmet Ergen, ensures that the principals are well-drawn, the characters played by these three are sketched with broad strokes. They provide some easy laughs (especially Warren-Green’s turn as an awkward Miss California and Carlyle’s oleaginous turn as pageant host), but those laughs are easy and smack of some laziness in the writing or direction.

What is not in dispute, however, is the quality of singing. While the first numbers are maybe a touch hesitant, the cast quickly hits its stride and belts out some decent numbers that serve to carry the story and give insight into their individual journeys.

So while the story may be predictable, Little Miss Sunshine, A Road Musical provides undemanding and enjoyable entertainment.

Runs Until 20 July 2019 and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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