Little Miss Sunshine: A Rocky Road Musical

Wednesday 5th June 2019 at the Grand Opera House, York.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The hit film hits the stage with Little Miss Sunshine: A Road Musical currently touring U.K. theatres in a production which jovially joins the adaptation craze with mixed results.

Little Miss Sunshine is of course based on the runaway hit 2006 movie (written by Michael Arndt) and manages to keep the key points intact. We meet a family on the edge with bickering parents Richard (Gabriel Vick) and Sheryl (Lucy O’Byrne) facing financial and potentiallly mid-life crises simultaneously, a post-suicide attempt Uncle Frank (Paul Keating), a Nietzsche-crazed ball of mute teen angst going by the aptronym Dwayne (Sev Keoshgerian), an outrageous self-proclaimed lethario Grandpa (Mark Moraghan) and a super cute bundle of pure and uncompromising optimism in little Olive (the adorable Lily Mae Denman at this performance). 

The gang hop into the family good for nothing VW bus for a bum numbingly long road trip to get Olive first place in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. It’s not a smooth trip and plenty of drama descends leading to some nice comic ludicrousness and Harry Hill type shenanigans.

There is plenty to like here – Moraghan is brilliantly tongue in cheek and gregarious as Grandpa and O’Byrne (who has a distinct Julianne Moore vibe) becomes increasingly relatable and likeable as the troubled mum. Imelda Warren-Green offers fabulous comic relief as both awkward bereavement worker Linda and the slightly crazed Miss California – all funny faces and thinly veiled (in the name of comedy) brilliant vocals. Keoshgerian nails the big reveal, Keating balances light and dark nicely and Vick plays the helpless breadwinner with a gentle desperation. 

Denman is hugely impressive for her young age and brings great energy and optimism to the production, delivering the outrageously awkward finale number with a perfected display of blind innocence and a care-free love of fun fun fun. The finale is pretty wonderful all round in fact as it fearlessly celebrates renewed solidarity discovered through hardships. Every character is made likeable on some level by a well placed cast and the production does benefit from a cast like this when it matters most: creating a bustle and a buzz with limited numbers.

Distracting incongruity lies in the odd casting of actors almost twice the height and certainly twice the age of our Olive singing songs about what a pain she is as if they would ever show any interest never mind come into contact with someone her age in their latter years of high school. Odd. The up side is that their grating bully musical numbers add another dimension to the production for some variety beyond the gentle patter of much of the music.

The issue with this show is its music, and the absence of the conventional musical number list in the programme is a solid indication that the songs themselves aren’t a clear drive in the show. Too often the songs are tepidly understated with some odd key choices causing the cast to half speak, half sing. Nowhere in Little Miss Sunshine is there to be found a showstopper or something allowing at least one cast member to thrill and amaze with killer pipes in a headlining triumph.

Instead, O’Byrne makes the most of her melancholy number to hint at what she might be really capable of given the material and Warren-Green finds opportunities where she can to show vocal prowess. There are some very pretty moments and enjoyably light and bouncy numbers to entertain but none of them leave with you and to be lacking in both the vocally demanding and the catchy stakes makes this a decidedly problematic musical.

Mehmet Ergen directs this vision of book writer, composer, lyricist and original director James Lapine and makes great use of a small cast to tell the story actively with a good dose of visual interest. David Woodhead’s set includes a revolve which is a rare sight in a touring production and here it contributes some fun sequences surrounding the decaying old bus. And that revolve makes the most of what can only be described as a disappointing substitute for an ambitious bus set piece. 

If a particularly spectacular stage gaff hadn’t glaringly pointed out the limitations of such a stripped back approach to the poster focal point, namely a cast member falling off the set piece chair and all, it may well have slipped past as a minimal stylised choice. The gaff was handled beautifully by the cast but nevertheless, the clunkiness of the construction points to a poorly conceived attempt at quirky minimalism which is a shame as Ergen’s bus interior direction is great in its episodic montage of time passing by. 

Little Miss Sunshine is a definitely a mixed bag. The story itself is engaging and the central family quirky, credibly put together and individually likeable. With a stronger focus on the musical elements of this Little Miss Sunshine Musical, the story could be all the more engaging and the cast could get their teeth into something more rewarding beyond simply delivering a good story well.

Little Miss Sunshine is presented by Selladoor Productions and Arcola Theatre. It plays the Grand Opera House, York until June 8th 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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