REVIEW: Little Miss Sunshine, New Wolsey Theatre (UK Tour) ✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews Little Miss Sunshine at the New Wolsey Theatre as part of its UK Tour.

Little Miss Sunshine UK Tour

Little Miss Sunshine The Musical
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
24 May 2019
3 Stars
UK Tour Schedule

“How do you write a hit musical? Easy. Make a film and wait thirty years for it to be adapted- it will happen eventually.” So said one wag on Twitter, and it feels like every 80’s movie hit is being given a score and a few dance routines. Always tricky, the subject usually has a strong recognition factor that gets an audience in, but it’s even trickier to adapt a cult hit, one of those independent movies that broke through to a wider public, who tend to love the film fiercely and protect it. Little Miss Sunshine is such a case, and, slightly recast from its Arcola Theatre premiere, the musical adaptation of the best-loved and Oscar-winning film arrived at the New Wolsey.

It’s a charming and terrific story of the dysfunctional Hoover family, who are brought together when daughter Olive gets through, (somewhat accidentally), to the final of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, which necessitates a road trip to California. Grandpa is a cocaine addict, kicked out of his retirement home for drug and sexual harassment offences, Mum Sheryl is the rock trying to hold the family together, Dad Richard an eternal optimistic whose Ten Steps To Success are challenging the patience of his family, son Dwayne has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force and hates his family anyway, and gay Uncle Frank joins them fresh from his suicide attempt, taken after falling in love with one of his students, who then left for another teacher. As is the case with all road movies, much is learnt and revealed about each other as they slowly move to being a functional unit.

The production is perfectly cast, and, as a lot of it hinges on Olive, Lily Mae Denman, (on the night I saw it), was perfect, charming, innocent, and cutting through the crap her family created with ease. Lucy O’Bryne was excellent as Mum Sheryl, on the verge of breaking, but holding things together, and paired with Gabriel Vick’s excellent Richard, they made a strong head of the family unit, even if it appeared they are failures. Sev Keosggerian a great, angst-ridden, mainly silent Dwayne, and, as Uncle Frank, Paul Keating brought superb melancholy and self- pity, mixed with the right amount of anarchy to fire the family up. Best of all was Mark Moraghan’s politically incorrect, drug using, sexy and yet sympathetic Grandpa, providing an energy that drove the first half very well. However, he is less profane and caustic here than he is n the film, which is a shame, but his love for his granddaughter provides one of the most touching relationships in the show.

But there is a problem here, and it’s a pretty big problem given that this is a musical. The music is instantly forgettable. Whilst the book by Sondheim collaborator James Lapine is strong, the music and lyrics by William Finn feel forced onto proceedings. Most of the lyrics are in the form of dialogue, so it may have worked better as a play, and many songs lack the emotional kick needed at key points in the story. For example, when Richard sings about his Dad, Grandpa does not appear to respond with his side of the story, it feels one dimensional. And, if you’ve seen the film you’ll know this, if not-SPOILER ALERT- Grandpa dies on the journey, here at the interval, and we really miss him in Act Two. Olive is also given some “Mean Girls” to poke fun at her, and these performers also play pageant queens in the competition, but they are much older than Olive, and, frankly, it looks weird. Things aren’t helped by some serious padding that is designed solely to give the girls time to change outfits.

That said, when Olive does her dance, capturing perfectly the uncomfortable atmosphere of the original, and her family join her dance in an act of defiance against authority, it is an absolute joy and you can’t help but root for them. If the music was improved, I’d consider taking this road trip again. But it works better as a play, in which case I’ll stay in and watch my DVD of the film. A shame, as the musical interludes make the show stop and start much like the Hoover’s camper van.

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