Thursday, November 21, 2013

REVIEW: Little Miss Sunshine

Review of the Sunday, November 17 evening performance at Second Stage Theatre Company at  the Tony Kiser Theatre in New York City.  Starring Stephanie J. Block, Will Swensen, David Rasche, Rory O’Malley, Logan Rowland, and Hannah Nordberg.  Book by James Lapine.  Music and lyrics by William Finn.  Choreography by Michelle Lynch. Direction by James Lapine.  1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.  Adult language.

Grade: B+

Considering how closely the stage version hews to the independent film that I loved upon which it is based, one would think that I'd adore the musical Little Miss Sunshine.  I liked it.  A lot.  I laughed heartily throughout, and my foot tapped continuously.  All good signs, right?  And yet something, for me, is missing in the translation.  What that is, however, I can't quite put my finger on.  Maybe that doesn't matter so much - the show, as it stands, knows what it is and delivers just that: an enjoyable, entertaining diversion with a top notch cast.

Wesley Taylor, Josh Lamon and Rory O'Malley

Let's get the more obvious (for me) negatives out of the way first.  First, I know that if I had Will Swensen and, more to the point, Stephanie J. Block in my arsenal, I'd make sure that they had one hell of a power ballad to belt to the rafters.  As it is, they have been given a flashback scene with a nice enough song.  But that scene never really rings true, and feels shoe-horned into the piece.  Worst of all, the emotional payoff of the scene no way compensates for the fact that it brings the show to a grinding halt.  Second, there is a confrontation scene between post-suicidal Uncle Frank (Rory O'Malley) and men that drove him to the brink - boy toy Josh (Wesley Taylor) and academic/romantic rival Larry (Josh Lamon).  It takes place in a rest stop men's room, and while the mimed use of the urinals is, um, spot on, the rest of the scene is so overwrought, it is never quite believable.  It feels like a giant operatic foray into what ends up being a plot point dropped from that moment on.  The acting itself is fine by all involved, and it all might have worked, actually, if it ended in a moment of epiphany or even, God forbid, a feeling of closure.  Instead, Frank is an emotional mess, and it never comes up again.  Huh?  I wonder if my problem with these scenes is that they are not directly from the film, since the rest is so much like its original source...

The Little Miss Sunshine Pageant
Hannah Nordberg, center

There are a couple of elements added or altered from the film that do work.  The work between Lamon as the pageant coordinator/emcee and Jennifer Sanchez as Miss California has been condensed from the movie, and really telescopes the scathing point of view regarding pageants both properties share.  The musical also uses the other child pageant contestants (Alivia Clark, Victoria Dennis, Miranda McKeon, Leonay Shepherd) as a sort of Greek Chorus/conscience of Olive (Hannah Nordberg).  They are an absolute show-stopping riot, as is Olive's subsequent reactions to what they have to say.  They talk like 30 year olds, complete with all the head-shaking, eye-rolling and "no-she-didn't!" attitude.  It is clear, even as we laugh, that this is more an attack on a society that has embraced such disgusting "reality" spectacle as Toddlers in Tiaras and Dance Moms, where we can't wait to hear what sharp barbs come out of mini-adults who have been over-indulged since birth. While these themes are not central to the show, they do give it a nice bite.  More of this kind of thing  might have elevated the musical version above its film predecessor.

Getting on the bus

James Lapine's direction (along with Michelle Lynch's energetic choreography) is fast-paced (my above objections not withstanding) and gives the stage-equivalent feeling of a road trip movie.  He has also managed to - with a delightfully theatrical style - take care of one problem the film presents: how do you stage people pushing a bus into working and show them jumping on one by one?  It is clever and fun to watch each time it happens.  Beowulf Boritt's road map/GPS setting and endlessly clever projections, as well as Ken Billington's expert lighting, add to the road trip vibe, while transitioning us easily from place to place.  Jennifer Caprio's costumes are down-on-their-luck spot on, and her pageant costumes are equally apropos and biting at the same time.

I wish the Playbill had a song list, so I could be more specific about William Finn's always serviceable and sometimes awesome score.  But I can say that his Sondheim-like approach to the opening number gets us right up to speed with the state of mind of the family we are about to get to know, as they sing Into the Woods-like bits of wisdom about how life has dealt them a bad hand, and how desperate they are to rise above it.  It struck me after the show that the finale should have been the same thing, with the family singing about how life maybe isn't so bad once you learn to accept the ones you love, flaws and all.  Throughout the show, there are those signature Finn songs, with more words per beat than any composer alive, paired with light, bouncy tunes.  And he throws in a couple of his patented soul-searching ballads, too.  (A little more of this, please.  How about one for little Olive?)

As with so many shows lately, the cast is uniformly terrific and manages to rise above any and all of the production's flaws.  You can't help but feel they deserved a little more somehow.  Kudos to Logan Rowland for making the mostly silent, always brooding Dwayne accessible and likable.  Considering that he says (and sings) nothing for more than half of the show, that is no small task.  His physicality and facial expressions speak volumes, a nice counterpoint to a family that never seems to shut up.  David Rasche is a gruff, grumpy Grandpa who is also as cuddly as a teddy bear - a tough trick to pull off for a character that is also obsessed with porn and deviant sex, not to mention a drug habit.  Rory O'Malley is a cool mix of vulnerability, self-doubt, and growing self-empowerment.  His is the character the most obviously grows throughout the show, and as such, has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Road Trip!!

In a family that is the very definition of dysfunction, with the parents equally to blame and equally dysfunctional, both Will Swensen and Stephanie J. Block work well together, convincing in conveying a long marriage full of compromises and disappointments.  It is especially nice that they don't overdo the gravitas.  Separately, Ms. Block has the most to work with, and does a nice job as the harried mother who finally realizes that she must pay closer attention to each individual in her brood before she loses the whole group at once.  Mr. Swensen, though, seems just a tad at sea with his material - I never really believed that he could come up with a self-help guide.  But he does have moments that pay off well - when he makes peace with his father, and quiet moments with each of kids play very well.  The real star of the show, though, is Hannah Nordberg, as little Olive.  She is sweet, instantly endearing, and attacks the role with a child-like wonder.  You believe her innocence from the start, especially when you watch her navigate the rough waters of being a little girl versus the self-involved little adults that are her "conscience."  She looks like she is having a ball, but with the wonder of a child, not of a seasoned child actress.  Genuine is genuine and it pours off this kid, and we are all the better for it.

I guess, in this case, I have to agree with the majority of critics in that somehow, considering everyone involved, that I expected more.  I was definitely entertained, but I really hoped to be moved like I was by the film.  Maybe that isn't fair - I'd probably complain even louder if Finn, Lapine and company cranked out another show just like their previous works.  Well, it is what it is, and I am glad I didn't miss it.  Maybe that is enough.


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