Julian Eaves reviews Little Miss Sunshine the musical, which is now playing at the Arcola Theatre ahead of a UK tour.
Little Miss Sunshine
1st April 2019
As queues stretch around the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, made up of stage-struck kids and their obedient families coming to worship at the shrine of the one called ‘Jamie’, managements up and down the country are searching for their own version of the Holy Grail of musical theatre: a sure-fire hit of comparable dimensions. Selladoor Productions, working in conjunction with the Arcola Theatre, perhaps believe they have found theirs in this European launch of a nearly 10-year old Sundance-La-Jolla-Off-Broadway creation about a little New Mexico girl stung by the showbiz bug, who propels her entire family into accompanying her to a tots’ beauty pageant in distant California. Part oddball family freak-show, part road movie, part fairy-tale, it’s a fusion of ‘Annie’ meets ‘Gypsy’ meets ‘Matilda’. With a book by James Lapine and a score by William Finn – a team that had a stonking success with ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ – it promises a great deal. The director, the Arcola’s founder and leader, Mehmet Ergen, has a long track record of working wonders with unusual and challenging musical theatre: that promises even more. A reasonably large company has been assembled to take it on a significant national tour (including four children, all of whom have to be triple cast and chaperoned), embracing some pretty important (ie. capacious) venues. The ensemble company includes some of the best musical theatre leads in the country.
Speaking of which, I think the stand-out joy of this production has to be the cast. Although much of the audience’s natural instinct leads it to sympathise most with the lead figure, and the trio of brats who swarm around her, you really do have to like the wind-up-doll automata of stage school products to warm to them. Personally, I do: in fact, I particularly adore the three gremlin-like bullies, the ‘Mean Girls’ (and, yes, that IS the title of another show), who tease and terrorise the unflappable cock-eyed optimist of cutesy idealist Olive (Lily Mae Denman, Evie Gibson and Sophie Hartley-Booth), the would-be star of the beauty pageant. William Finn’s beautifully written happy-go-lucky tunes seem to suit these personalities best, and I think the show is strongest when they are centre stage.
The rest of the family get to serve us up some pretty strong meat, demanding a much stronger stomach and – quite possibly – a different score, or even show. As the long-suffering mum, Sheryl Hoover, the one member of the troupe who seems to have the firmest grip on reality, Laura Pitt-Pulford turns in yet another brilliantly realised characterisation, packed full of the tiniest and most telling details and quirks, that remind us of her remarkable qualities as a singing actress: a lined face, sharp-eyed, humane and tender, and the first to face up to the dangers her family faces, when everybody else appears to be in flight from them. Playing opposite her, as dreamer hubby, Richard, Gabriel Vick – beefier and more solid than I saw him last – convinces as the kind of guy who would drive a VW camper van (more of this in a moment) and want to change the world, while relentlessly becoming more and more conventional and dull. They have another child, Sheryl’s son by an earlier marriage, the elective mute, Dwayne, who reads (obvious) Nietzsche, and is here given remarkable power by newcomer Sev Keoshgerian. The shadow cast by this is fleeting, however: the show’s heart – like that of most musicals – is really firmly in the hands of Williams James and positivism. No better illustration of that, surely, could be imagined than the great glory of the Hoovers, the ribald, heroin-snorting Grandpa, played with perfect judgement and impeccable skill by Gary Wilmot: his signature number, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The Van’ is a masterpiece of musical theatre craft and the one number that really catches the hearts of the audience. He is a delight.
Also along for this ride, though, is Paul Keating’s strikingly aged incarnation as Sheryl’s suicidal, lapsed academic, gay brother, Frank, whose voice alone betrays the dazzling warmth of his soul. In one of the script’s most bolted-on scenes, en route Frank just happens to run into a couple of figures from his past: his former inamorato, Matthew Macdonald’s Joshua Rose, and the competitor who stole him away, Ian Carlyle’s oleaginous Larry (both of whom play other parts: the cozy Kirby, and the garish host of the pageant, Buddy). We also get a brace of parts from the increasingly interesting Imelda Warren-Green: the grimly funny ‘bereavement facilitator’ – if I caught that correctly – Linda, and the awkwardly brash Miss California.
There is another character, of course: the van that takes the Hoovers across several state lines. Now: shows which feature vehicles, and which are successful pieces of stagecraft, usually use them sparingly, so they avoid becoming a distraction or an encumbrance. Even the title character in ‘Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang’, for instance, is not actually on stage very much. In ‘Oklahoma’ that surrey with the fringe on top makes only one appearance, and right at the end. In ‘Ragtime’, Coalhouse Walker Jnr’s car – a vitally important component in the drama – only has one scene. Brad and Janet don’t spend more than one brief scene in their car on the way to the Frankenfurter house. And so on. In other shows, the vehicle is either so large that you hardly notice its presence (‘Titanic’, ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’), or it makes for endlessly intrusive and clumsy transitions between bits of it (‘On The Twentieth Century’). I think there might be a very important lesson here. As in the recently seen ‘Violet’, when a large slab of the show is taken up with watching people sitting in a vehicle and not really doing anything else, the cast has a jolly hard time of trying to retain the audience’s attention. And so it proves here.
David Woodhead’s design shrouds the stage in a road map of the south-west, which is evocative of the scale and scope of the journey at hand, and in a way, I wish he’d left it at that and allowed our imaginations to do the rest. But no. We have to get a pull-out chassis upon which to position kitchen chairs to ‘become’ the bus: so it is really neither one thing nor the other. Luckily, the second act dispenses with it altogether, but only after Lapine’s bizarrely downbeat and off-hand termination of the first ‘act’. You can’t really call it an ‘ending’. More structural oddities come our way: there is a flashback, just one, for the married couple, in the first half. No-one else is blessed with such recollections, nor do they ever revisit Mr and Mrs Hoover. It was never clear to me why. Then, Olive is pestered by a trio of Mozartian commentators, the Mean Girls, who pop up and invade other people’s scenes, unnoticed by everyone except Our Heroine. However, their capacity for doing this is limited to the first act: thereafter, they have to become ‘real’ competitors in the pageant, restricting their freedom to act as a chorus. In fact, their actual appearance in their real-world function is pretty much the high-point of the whole show: it is the moment where Olive has finally reached her Oz, the destination where she must prove herself. It cries out to be a musical number, of course. And do you think Mr Finn hears those cries? No, he does not. (Or, if he ever did, then somebody else decided that we would not hear them.) The other musical numbers get placed higgeldy-piggledy in a manner that allows a character, or two, or three, or more, to give voice to their emotions, with little other object or purpose in mind. The songs don’t, generally speaking, move us anywhere, they hold us up. This is weird in a ‘road movie’ show. Oh, but there’s more. The opening, if it really can be called that, is a bit of a phlegmatic dirge, ‘The Way of the World’, which sets a glum and valedictory tone for the cast to battle against. Nice of the writers to do that.
As I’m sure plenty of others have noticed already, the show didn’t play very long in New York. A lot of work has been done on it along the way, much re-writing has been lavished upon it, but at no point do enough people seem to have come to an agreement about what sort of a show it is meant to be. It’s a kids’ show; it’s a grown-ups show. But what really needs to be registered is that it’s a dramatisation of the clash of cultures between the shocking amorality of the Hoovers, whose drug-addicted addled patriarch grooms innocent (and plainly inadequately supervised) Olive to perform with monstrously non-age-appropriate moves – a slap in the face to the stultifying conformity and tedium of the robotic beauty parade. That, in fact, is what lies at the heart of this story, and Lapine dodges it almost to the point of making it vanish. Unable to make it go away completely, though, he ends up giving us a tale without a heart. His script is a capitulation and, ultimately, it disappoints.
Meanwhile, the bright lights of Richard Williamson dazzle; the noisy sound design of Olly Steel does its best in the tricky acoustics of the Arcola to balance a dozen very different voices and the band of five; the choreography of Anthony Whiteman, working with a cast of acting-singers rather than dancers, does what it can to energise the show’s many moments of reflective stasis; Arlene McNaught’s musical direction makes Mark Crossland’s arrangements sound smooth and comforting, like an old-fashioned Broadway show, sanding down any abrasive edge or bite it may once have had. A lot of good people put a lot of sincere effort into a lot of departments, in their endeavour to make the best of the show. But the fact remains, this ran for just two months (including previews) at the Second Stage Theatre, and I am not at all sure that it is going to run any better over here. Pace the Jamie-Grail, and all that. But we shall have to see.