Book/Lyrics: James Lapine
Music/Lyrics: William Finn
Writer: Michael Arndt
Director: Mehmet Ergen
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Nobody expected the quirky US 2006 road movie to be the massive success it turned out to be. A struggle to get made, a small budget, and with a location shifted from one end of the country to the other, it could so easily have been just one of a crop of dysfunctional family stories popular at the time that played the arthouse cinemas and was subsequently forgotten. But it wasn’t. A bunch of awards and much audience love put Little Miss Sunshine on the movie map. It’s the charm of the original story that obviously attracted James Lapine and William Finn to adapt it. It’s certainly not an obvious film to transfer to the musical stage, but they did, opening in the US in 2011.
The current tour, which opened in April and which takes in a wide sweep of the UK, is the European premiere. It’s hard to work out what took so long. Simply staged and with a small cast, it packs a lot in to a relatively modest production. What it lacks in theatrical extravagance, it easily makes up in likeability. A fun, touching story, a punchy script, and a great cast give it an exuberance you might not expect.
Little Miss Sunshine is the story of the Hoover family who set out in their decrepit VW van on an epic weekend drive across a third of the continent so their daughter can take part in a California children’s beauty pageant. Things aren’t going well for any of them, and being cooped up together is going to be make or break.
Musically, Little Miss Sunshine feels surprisingly traditional. There’s not one song catchy enough to have you singing it on the way home, but it feels like a solidly written score and the lyrics move the story on at a pace. All the cast get a good shot at their own songs and when they’re all called for, there are excellent harmonies, made particularly rich by the addition of the child’s voice, in this performance played by Evie Gibson.
Gibson puts in a really quite spectacular performance. She has a lovely natural air about her, confident as hell but without any over-the-top stage-school sparkle. She completely nails everything from Olive’s heart-warming humility to a sassy dance number. There’s not a moment when she doesn’t totally match the energy, focus and delivery of the rest of the cast.
Mark Moraghan as Grandpa also sets the bar high with a warm, delightfully roguish performance, but this really is an ensemble piece that makes best use of all its small cast. There are some brilliant additional characters – Imelda Warren-Green’s over the top Miss California is a comedy highlight, and Matthew McDonald wrings every last laugh out of his mostly silent pageant technician role.
The slickness of the score, book and performances isn’t quite reflected in some slightly clunky set changes which slow the pace unnecessarily. A simple set (David Woodhead) is visually effective and well used by Director Mehmet Ergen, particularly the revolve, which gives the van movement and dimension, and the levels – the upper level creating a great space for the small on-stage band, partially obscured and yet still in the very heart of things.
There are loads of laughs in this warm and cheerful show, but it’s also a tender story about an ordinary family that might just make you shed a tear. Lots and lots to like.
Runs until 1 June 2019 | Image: Contributed