The play is based on the screenplay by Michael Arndt for the 2006 Academy Award winning film by the same name with the brilliant stellar ensemble cast of Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carrell and Alan Arkin amongst others. The musical adaptation for stage with a book by James Lipine was staged at La Jolla Playhouse, California in 2011, followed by an off-Broadway season in 2013. This production by New Theatre is its premiere production in Sydney.
The idea of the film came to Arndt when he came across a speech by the then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that he gave to high school students. He said, “If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s losers. I despise them.” Reacting to that speech, Arndt wrote this screenplay, celebrating the underdog instead. The story and characters revolve around the premise that we can’t all be winners and reminds us that we shouldn’t even want to be, especially if that means measuring ourselves against the general unrealistic standards of success.
The story takes you on a road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to California with the dysfunctional but lovable Hoover family. The matriarch of the family is Sheryl, who is an overworked mother juggling her life with husband Richard, unemployed but with high ambitions of becoming a motivational speaker and a Nietzsche-loving teenage son Dwayne, who has taken a vow of silence till he achieves his dream of becoming a jet pilot. Also, in the family is the hippie grandfather, Edwin, who’s been moved to the Hoover’s couch as he was evicted from his nursing home for snorting heroine and general debauchery. In the midst of this is the adorable & awkward 7 year old Olive, who has kept her positivity despite growing up in a dysfunctional but loving family. Olive has a dream of competing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest in California and she has been coached by her eccentric grandfather for the competition. To fulfill her dream, the family takes a road trip in a beat up yellow VW Kombi van and everyone in the family has to come along for the ride, even Sheryl’s gay suicidal brother, Frank, an academic who is heart-broken because he has recently been abandoned by his boyfriend. What ensues on this 500 mile long trip is nothing short of absurd and hilarious. Everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong but the love that the family has for each other and especially little Olive sees them chugging along. With twists and turns in the story all along, we discover each family member’s story and character culminating in the hilarious conclusion of Olive’s performance on the beauty contest’s stage.
It is certainly hard to watch the stage version of this story without constantly thinking of the characters and events of the movie and one has to remind oneself to constantly readjust your expectations. It is a challenge to bring a road trip story to stage and the set designer has done a clever job of depicting several different locations in a sparse set design. The lyrics and musical score on the other hand is not very convincing. Characters and story as quirky and nuanced as this could’ve certainly lent itself to a more vibrant and edgy score.
The pace of the first half is slow and the songs don’t help. Of the main characters, the stand-out performances came from Keira Dzeparoski as Olive and Christopher O’Shea as Dwyane. Some real highlight performances of the show however came from the actors playing the minor characters, mainly Gavin Leahy who played various roles but most brilliantly of the over-the-top pageant host. Also, Sarah Furnari who played Miss California and the Map Bitch.
The lighting design was effective in the second half and a little lackluster in the first. The sound effects of the beat up old Kombi seemed unnecessary. The direction would’ve been more convincing if the director had taken the ‘think outside the box’ approach. The lovable and eccentric characters are what made this play interesting to watch and those who hadn’t seen the movie would’ve certainly enjoyed it a lot more.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
By: James Lapine
Directed by: Deborah Jones
Music & Lyrics: William Finn
Photo © Bob Seary
Cast: Kiera Dzeparoski, Sarah Furnari, Aneke Golowenko, Martin Grelis, John Grinston, Ellacoco Hammer McIver, Gavin Leahy, Christopher O’Shea, Fiona Pearson, Julian Ramundi, Grace Ryan, Adam van den Bok
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