The original 2006 film of Little Miss Sunshine is a work of genius. It’s a sad, sweet, strange movie that’s worth revisiting again and again. It deservedly won Oscars for first-time writer Michael Arndt and actor Alan Arkin.
One of the most striking things about it was its chugging, minimalistic music by DeVotchKa and Mychael Danna, a perfect encapsulation of the mixture of melancholy and absurdity that fills the film.
So it was always going to be a tough thing to reinterpret for the stage. Yet even despite the power-team of book writer James Lapine –Stephen Sondheim’s collaborator on Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George and Passion – and composer William Finn, who wrote the wonderful The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Mehmet Ergen’s production isn’t a match for much of their previous work, nor the film.
Little Miss Sunshine is essentially a road movie in which a dysfunctional family – a druggie grandad, a Nietzsche-reading son who’s taken a vow of silence, a Proust scholar uncle who’s just survived a suicide attempt, and a dad who thinks his 12-step programme will bring him success – drive a broken VW camper to California so that their daughter can take part in a beauty pageant.
On screen, this works wonderfully. On stage, almost every song feels like a missed opportunity. The tone is sincere when it should be irreverent, irreverent when it needs to be sincere. Most of the numbers feel as if they’ve been plucked from other musicals and transplanted into this story – only for the transplant to be rejected.
Credit where it’s due: some of Lapine’s updates, such as the fact that silent Dwayne uses a mobile phone to communicate rather than a notepad and pen, or the ever-present, ever-unhelpful satnav (“map bitch” as the children call it) really work. It’s when Lapine breaks away from the film that the show begins to find its feet.
The fact that most of the story takes place in a moving camper van poses a challenge. Ergen addresses this with a revolve, and David Woodhead’s suitably bright and sunshiny set. But he struggles to find the right tonal balance between funny and sad.
The performances help somewhat. Laura Pitt-Pulford, as mum Sheryl, is stronger at the emotional scenes than the comic ones. There are very good turns from the ever-reliable Gary Wilmot and newcomer Sev Keoshgerian – plus Sophie Hartley-Booth is very cute as young Olive (the role rotates).
It’s a shame, then, that the material is so middling and repetitive. The characters express their feelings by saying “I feel” a lot, then they move on to the next scene.
The result is the musical equivalent of British sunshine compared with Californian rays: weaker, thinner and capable of making you wish you’d just stayed at home instead.