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Little Miss Sunshine

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, Rory O'Malley, Hannah Nordberg, David Rasche, and Logan Rowland
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The set tells the story. At first glance it appears to be a light gray sky, extending from the onstage horizon to the space above your head at the Second Stage Theatre, pockmarked with enough bright features to brand this not as a gloomy weather report but a fairy tale in the making. But look a bit longer and you'll see it's really a map, its primary feature a desolate road that you're following with no attractions or destination in sight as though you're on a road trip that's literally endless.

"Endless" is, in fact, an excellent description of the new musical that uses this scenery (by Beowulf Boritt), Little Miss Sunshine. Composer-lyricist William Finn and librettist-director James Lapine have collaborated on this adaptation of the hit 2006 movie, and sucked all the joy, charm, and life right out of what ought to have been a surefire proposition. What remains is so arid, empty, and frankly clueless that you can never be sure you're not watching a staged first draft.

What makes this especially startling is that both Lapine and Finn are experienced hands. Though they've had successes separately, much of their most notable work has been done together: Lapine directed two of Finn's Falsettos musicals and Second Stage's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, both Off- and on Broadway, and wrote the book to A New Brain. So they have proven they understand what's necessary even when all the elements don't completely jell.

Their work, however, is typically pointed, if also not more intelligent and cerebral, tackling diverse issues—adolescent isolation, Jewish sexual identity, neurosurgery—demanding innovative treatments that transcend traditional forms. And for this property, there was some reason to believe they'd achieve a similar alchemy: The plot is, after all, at heart a vague spin on the Falsettos formula: five goys in a bus bitching, who only slowly learn to accept and love each other, despite facing numerous obstacles.

Hannah Nordberg with Josh Lamon
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The aforementioned bus is carrying father Richard (Will Swenson), mother Sheryl (Stephanie J. Block), son Dwayne (Logan Rowland), uncle Frank (Rory O'Malley), and Grandpa (David Rasche) from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach so daughter Olive (Hanna Nordberg) can participate in the children's beauty pageant she unwittingly qualified for. And considering how screwed up everyone is, there's no end of potential conflict: Sheryl is supporting the family while Richard is trying to sell his flailing book, Frank is recuperating from a botched suicide attempt after an affair with a student went awry, Logan has taken a vow of silence until he can get into flight school, and Grandpa has been kicked out of his nursing home for drug use.

Yet every conflict feels manufactured and the bonds of love, however difficult, unbelievable when not outright undetectable—two ailments from which the screen version did not suffer. Lapine and Finn, alas, have not transformed the film into something that sings rather than merely gripes.

None of the characters ignites, in large part because their relationships feel as though they were sketched on stained cocktail napkins. A half-hearted flashback to bickering Richard and Sheryl's life in earlier times reveals nothing we could not already intuit. A life-upending hospital visit is maddeningly emotion-free. Dwayne is a cipher who cannot utter a spoken or sung syllable until it's too late for his struggles to have an impact; Grandpa is the cliché-worn dirty old man, whose sole solo trumpets the virtues of sex; and the complex Frank earns little more than a vapid trio with his ex-boyfriend and his new lover (Wesley Taylor and Josh Lamon, both wasted).

That the songs are among Finn's weakest to date does not help. The tunes are evanescent in their catchiness (though Vadim Feichtner's seven-piece band gives them their bouncy all), but the lyrics do not plumb these people's psyches nor critique their innate, applied vacuity (a reasonable reading of the film's treatment). Even the more nakedly sentimental moments feel at best obligatory: Sheryl's "Something Better Better Happen" contains ear-popping lyrics like "I'm not sure what each decision meant / Every day I'm feeling less content"; Richard's equivalent, "What You Left Behind," digs no deeper than "I can't be blind / That you sometimes gave and took at will / But you left behind / Some shoes that I have yet to fill."

The staging is hardly less troubling. Boritt's set and projections, and Ken Billington's lighting, are boring on their own, and fail to even lend the atmosphere of a possible picaresque. Then there's the matter of that the Volkswagen bus, so crucial to establishing these people's limitations; because it cannot be placed onstage on the cheap, a group of wheeled yellow chairs is instead employed as a stand-in. This is visually unsatisfying to begin with—and the actors' sloppy, underrehearsed-looking manipulation of the chairs only makes things worse—but the more we see cast members run after stationary chairs representing the malfunctioning bus, the less convincing such illusions become.

Swenson and Block, chilly actors in the most fortuitous circumstances, kindle no relationship with each other to suggest theirs is a marriage worth either saving or acknowledging. Rasche looks so young and vital, that the notion that he'd yet be in an old-age home is the evening's biggest (and almost only) laugh. Rowland makes Dwayne too disconnectedly angry to let him be at all sympathetic. Nordberg has the right style of spunk for Olive but comes across as more mechanically precocious than endearing. Only O'Malley taps into a slightly oversized honesty and unforced likability that works for both the character and the material.

Not that anything is really successful here. The plot's only job is to plant you so firmly in this family's corner that you stick with them through the arguments and the strife until you can finally see, in the climactic pageant scene, just how much they really care. That scene, so powerful in the film, shows how an ostensibly juvenile comedy can effortlessly transitioning into something universally adult. The communion they achieve is all but passed over onstage: finished in seconds, and leaving no appreciable effects in its wake.

These aren't people that can grow and change, the lesson seems to be, but soulless figures we need love anyway because, well, what else is a musical for? Whereas the movie of Little Miss Sunshine delivers happiness and exhilaration in its finale, the notion that you needn't ever fall too far to get back up, the musical leaves the viewer, like its plot, feeling like a hit-and-run victim as it speeds down the infinite highway its set depicts. Not every show needs to edify, but is it too much to ask that this one be true to itself and the tale it purports to be telling?

Little Miss Sunshine
Through December 15
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
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