Little Miss Sunshine: La Jolla Playhouse, 2/20/11

23 03 2011

The same weekend that I saw Paul Gordon’s Emma, I ventured to La Jolla Playhouse for James Lapine and William Finn’s new musical adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine. Both shows face similar challenges as they undergo further development to reach that mythic ideal: Broadway. But Little Miss Sunshine feels especially “still in development,” with many formal kinks to be worked out before a future life.

William Finn is a musical master of quirky characters – particularly evident in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing in theaters across the country since the rights recently became available. In many ways, Little Miss Sunshine seems a perfect match for Finn; the popular 2006 film chronicles the cross-country adventures of a dysfunctional family, whose chubby, effervescent little girl Olive dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Yet Finn’s music and lyrics, as well as James Lapine’s book, fall surprisingly short in this new musical adaptation.

As with Paul Gordon’s work on Emma, William Finn’s lyrics for Little Miss Sunshine lack the brightness and witticism that fans have come to expect from the composer of Falsettos, A New Brain, etc. Finn’s score also suffers from flat, fragmentary melodies rather than soaring songs. In so many contemporary musicals, I miss the “lift” of a transition from book to musical number; lyrics feel too much like dialogue, and music feels more like recitative. Where is the song?

Lapine’s book also has an identity crisis, elaborating on too many strands of the story and losing track of the core: Olive, a spunky little girl who reunites her family on this absurd journey. Act I of the musical adaptation explores countless adult character arcs, dominated by Olive’s dad: disillusioned motivational speaker Richard Hoover, played by the charismatic Hunter Foster. Oddly, Hoover’s chorus of coworkers (including a personal favorite of mine, Eliseo Roman, the piragua guy from In the Heights) sings the opening number and then pops up throughout the show, holding road signs to indicate the passage of time and encouraging the family onward with (intentionally) cliche motivational messages. For me, this additional framework only detracted – and distracted – from the heart of the show.

Little Miss Sunshine also suffers from a fundamental staging issue: most of the action takes place in a VW on the road to Redondo Beach. Lapine’s direction finds creative ways to “musicalize” the van, with elevator seats to bring each cast member into view and multiple vans of different sizes that can drive across the stage. But the story – and direction – still feels contained.

That is, until Act II, when something truly theatrical occurs: the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. In this show-within-a-show, Olive is restored to the center of the story and a wild mix of songs and comedy reminds the audience of Lapine and Finn’s potential effervescence as a creative duo. The ridiculously lavish onstage beauty pageant will thrill every Toddlers and Tiaras fan. After all, who doesn’t want to see a bright-eyed little girl sing “Send in the Clowns” – in a clown costume?

Olive’s raucous talent portion of the pageant opens up a marvelous performance opportunity – and Little Miss Sunshine finally soars as her entire family joins the entirely inappropriate song and dance. (“Let Me Entertain You” for a new generation, perhaps?) If only the rest of the musical could reach such a height.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

One response

15 11 2011
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE): 67% – SWEET : LA Bitter Lemons

[…] BITTERSWEET Olive’s raucous talent portion of the pageant opens up a marvelous performance opportunity – and Little Miss Sunshine finally soars as her entire family joins the entirely inappropriate song and dance. (“Let Me Entertain You” for a new generation, perhaps?) If only the rest of the musical could reach such a height. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: