News Column

Musical Based on Hit Movie Missing Its Heart

November 17, 2013


"Little Miss Sunshine," which opened Thursday night at the Second Stage Theatre, feels like a synopsis of a musical -- a cut-down, detail-drained version of a full-length show.

It runs a scanty 1 hour 40 minutes, not enough time to be more than a sketchy reduction of the popular 2006 road-trip movie on which it's based.

The darkly comic film was about a dysfunctional, financially struggling family traveling to a little-girls' beauty pageant.

The physical journey, a trip through the country's hinterland, was a key part of the story's fabric, a rite of passage during which the clan faced its issues and regrouped.

On the stage, that defining aspect of the tale is missing.

Instead of the movie's old yellow Volkswagen bus, in which the Hoover family takes its excursion from New Mexico to California, the show uses the puny stand-in of a half-dozen yellow kitchen chairs, which the cast gamely pushes around the stage when it's not sitting in them.

The presentation of the characters is just as deficient, with each getting a generic song or two by William Finn to spell out his or her issue.

Dad Richard (Will Swenson) is out of work and struggling to establish his Ten Steps to Success self-improvement business; Mom Sheryl (Stephanie J. Block) is overworked and stressed. She's just taken over the care of her brother Frank (Rory O'Malley), a Proust scholar who's recovering from slitting his wrists, a reaction to being abandoned by his lover for a more prominent Proust scholar.

Grandpa (David Rasche), Richard's foul-mouthed father, is a cocaine-sniffing, sex-obsessed senior citizen, while teenage son Dwayne (Logan Rowland) refuses to speak, out of a general disgust with life.

There's also little Olive (the appealing, 9-year-old Hannah Nordberg), who yearns to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. When the family agrees to take her, the adventure, despite its setbacks -- including the death of Grandpa -- becomes the revivifying experience this troubled American family needs.

Although book writer James Lapine, who also directed, has stayed close to the movie, "Little Miss Sunshine" is set forth with very little conviction.

One of the Hoovers' stated problems is that Sheryl and Richard are always at each other's throats. But we don't see that. Block is positive and good-natured, while Swenson is placid.

With their limited opportunities, the other actors operate at similar distances from their characters' supposedly formidable emotions.

Even the show's most entertaining scene has an issue.

Olive, a sweet, unassuming girl, is presented as a contrast to the other, hardened beauty contestants. While they're dressed and made up to resemble aspiring escorts, she wears a homespun pageant outfit derived from a Halloween costume.

But the routine she performs, while amusing, is a junior striptease, as "adult" as anything the other girls convey.

What's surprising about "Little Miss Sunshine" is that it's the work of Finn and Lapine, who collaborated on "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and are among the musical theater's wittiest and most savvy writers.

A clue to what might have happened can be found in an earlier version of the show, which had a run in San Diego in 2011.

That production ran 2 1/2 hours, so, in an attempt to fix whatever problems they perceived, Lapine and Finn chopped the show severely. Whatever benefits they might have achieved in pacing and clarity, they didn't leave enough meat on the bone. Audiences do need something to chew on.




New off-Broadway musical, at the Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

Book by James Lapine. Music and lyrics by William Finn. Directed by Lapine.

With Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, Hannah Nordberg, Rory O'Malley and David Rasche.

Schedule: Varies.

Tickets: $80 to $95. 212-246-4422, or

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