Book: James Lapine
Music and Lyrics: William Finn
Director: Mehmet Ergen
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
William Finn’s adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine promises much, wacky scenarios, a loveable misfit family and the most musical of themes, self-belief. And while no one likes to be upstaged, the success of Finn’s production, receiving its European premiere at the Arcola Theatre, relies on the glittering talents of four child actors who run away with every scene. In a production as fitful as their VW Van, it is the children who really bring this show to life.
Based on the 2006 film of the same name directed by James Lapine, the down-on-their-luck Hoover family are surprised to learn their unassuming daughter Olive has the chance to compete in a children’s beauty pageant 500-miles away. Determined to get her there, the whole family including hippie Grandpa, the silent teenager Dwayne and Uncle Frank, who is recovering from a suicide attempt, pile-in for the road trip of a lifetime.
In bringing this work to the stage, Finn and Lapine have really focused on the wholesome goodness of traditional American family life. The Hoovers may be poor and worn-down by life but as long as they have each other, everything will be alright. That full-blown optimism works really well in the show’s madcap moments as this ill-assorted bunch set out on their adventure. On route, there are chance encounters, embarrassing ‘dad moments’ and plenty of silliness that helps the show hurtle along for a very tidy two hours.
But all this lightness means that Little Miss Sunshine suffers when it tries to focus too much on reality, particularly in the relationship between parents Richard (Gabriel Vick) and Sheryl (Laura Pitt-Pulford). The audience never really has time to buy into them as a family unit before they’re on their way, so when Sheryl sings the Act One finale Something Better Better Happen about her desperation for change, or when the couple argue about money it just never rings true, a cartoon version of working-class struggles that distracts from the fun elsewhere.
Designer David Woodhead has created a giant roadmap set, on which a yellow cart doubles as the famous VW van using a rotating platform to give the impression of movement, but the relative confines of the space give it a static quality, making it harder to keep track of the overall journey to California. Dispensing with the physical van for most of Act Two, Anthony Whiteman has choreographed some frantic travel scenes, but with so many individual character trajectories to include the show has a fragmented feel that is never quite resolved.
But, at the heart of the show is the fantastic Sophie Hartley-Booth as Olive combining excellent comic timing, sensitivity and genuine showmanship that steals every scene from the humourless adults. Joining her are Yvie Bent, Ellicia Simondwood and Summer Pelley as the “Mean Girls” a well-staged figment of Olive’s mind who tell her she’s not good enough, and double as fellow contestants in the very funny mock pageant scene, which ends the show on a major high.
Matthew McDonald has a great cameo as a bored stage manager, as does Imelda Warren-Green as a vacant Bereavement Liaison and a reigning beauty queen, but while the principals – including Gary Wilmot as Grandpa and Paul Keating as Frank – sing well, the tonal shifts between the adult and child worlds never strikes the right balance. Little Miss Sunshine needs a slightly bigger scale to properly convey the length of the journey, as well as all the locations and people that the family encounter on the way. A valiant attempt, but the musical doesn’t combine the characters’ real and fantasy world as well as its famous source material.
Runs until: 11 May 2019 before a UK Tour | Image: Manuel Harlan