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Little Miss Sunshine—A Road Musical

James Lapine, based on the film by written by Michael Arndt with music and lyrics by William Finn
Arcola Theatre, Selladoor Productions
The Lowry, Salford
to

2019 has been characterised by a number of screen-to-stage productions adapting films into stage shows. The trend has a number of inherent problems: films allow for rapid scene changes and a sense of movement and space. The latter is particularly pertinent in the case of Little Miss Sunshine as the story takes the form of a physical journey, which is not easy to replicate realistically on stage.

In Little Miss Sunshine—A Road Musical director Mehmet Ergen makes the perceived limitations of the stage version part of the ramshackle charm of the production. The do-it-yourself style of the designs by David Woodhead (the family’s broken-down vehicle is constructed from a few kitchen chairs stacked in a row) reflects the theme of underdogs making the best of their limited resources. The journey becomes, therefore, symbolic of the Hoovers struggling to overcome the many challenges they face.

The Hoovers pretty much fulfil the definition of ‘dysfunctional family’. Grandpa (Mark Moraghan) evicted from his sheltered housing for peddling drugs; Uncle Frank (Paul Keating) has attempted suicide and unemployed but aspirational father Richard (Gabriel Vick) may be delusional about his chances of getting a book deal. Yet each of the family is willing to forget their own problems and help young Olive (Evie Gigson) when she defies the odds and gets the chance to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. However, as the process involves travelling from New Mexico to California, it is by no means certain the best intentions of the Hoovers will be enough to overcome the challenges they face.

James Lapine’s stage adaptation makes a number of tweaks to the film story. There are updates, such as references to Olive having a transsexual school friend, but the most significant is a toning-down of the judgemental sense in the movie that a family from the social class of the Hoovers does not really deserve success. The gentler stage version has two distinctive halves. The first act is a domestic drama while the second is more farcical—closer to dark comedy.

At least that may have been the intent; however, at this early stage in the tour, the production has not yet found its feet. Director Mehmet Ergen sets a sluggish pace; it is a brave choice to end act one in a downbeat manner but due to a lack of momentum it never feels like the Hoovers are being pushed to crisis point by one disaster after another so the impact is muted. The second half really needs a more rapid pace to build the sense of hysteria and things getting out of control required for successful dark comedy.

The adaptation turns the film into a musical but the process is not entirely successful. The songs are not especially memorable and work best as a substitute for dialogue; bringing variety to scenes of the family squabbling. This is a pity as the singing is of a uniformly high standard. The same is true of the acting. The cast avoid the temptation to turn the characters into clichéd grotesques finding a degree of dignity in each member of the family.

Paul Keating is in particularly fine form as the tightly wound depressive uncle and the physical presence of Mark Moraghan adds a sinister sense of menace. You can see how Grandpa would intimidate his neighbours in the sheltered housing.

Little Miss Sunshine—A Road Musical has quirky charm and features a really good cast but at this early stage in its journey has not achieved the offbeat emotionally satisfying atmosphere of the original movie.

Reviewer: David Cunningham