Chicago Theatre Review: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Chicago Theatre Workshop)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 19, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


A broken, cash-challenged clan go on a road trip to California that somehow heals their hurt. It’s not the Joads, colorful Okies in a Ford pick-up, fleeing the dust storms in Depression-era 1939. No, here the vehicle of escape is a Volkswagen bus and the (temporary) migrants are the Albuquerque clan of Hoovers. They’re following 21st-century sunsets to a beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, and the only road map guiding them is a bossy GPS lady dictating the twists and turns.

Little Miss Sunshine is not as uplifting or downtrodden as Steinbeck. But there’s a lot of no-harm charm in this musical based on a popular 2006 film by Michael Arndt, a collaboration between two Broadway giants who collaborated before A New Brain and Falsettos: lyricist and librettist James Lapine and composer William Finn. Their 100-minute showbiz spinoff honors the film’s sympathy for life’s underdogs. The Hoovers are lovable losers in the eccentric spirit of Kaufman and Hart’s Sycamore family—and when it comes to assorted quirks they can take it with them. Whether you enjoy their rocky road, as fanciful a journey as the one taken in (and on) Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, is a different matter.

Now in the first regional outing since its 2011 La Jolla Playhouse debut and 2013 off-Broadway production, Little Miss Sunshine celebrates non-conformity in a standardized world and, by the outing’s end, familial bonding over dysfunctional friction.

The Hoovers are merry misfits, within and without. A motivational speaker with0ut a motive and a life coach who needs a life, dad Richard (Greg Foster) has invented a 10-step self-help program (something’s lacking, it seems). His wife Sheryl (Sharyon Culberson) is hassled with gay brother Frank (George Keating), a Proust scholar who, following an ugly breakup with boyfriend Josh (Connor Baty), is now a (stereotypical) candidate for suicide.

Sheryl’s kids are a second handful: Hating high school and all other Hoovers, angst-written, Nietzsche-loving Dwayne (Kyle Klein II) has taken a vow of silence (85 days and counting) until he can become a test pilot and literally fly away. Precocious daughter Olive (phenomenal Sophie Kaegi) is a prepubescent dreamer who badly wants the California completion of being crowned Little Miss Sunshine.

Wobblily presiding over these zanies is Edwin (Ken Rubenstein), Sheryl’s dad and a heroin-snorting foxy grandpa who’s been kicked out of his retirement home. Their opening number, “The Way of the World,” conveys their bleak survival ethic. But it will mellow into overwrought Sheryl’s plaintive “Something Better Better Happen” and a final flamboyant failure that looks a lot like redemption.

For reasons that require the usual suspension of disbelief, the clan piles into a yellow Volkswagen Type 2 bus for a two-day, 800-mile odyssey to the Golden State. (Alas, here the crucial van can only be clumsily suggested by moving blocks and a cutaway exterior.) Along the way (and, as their chorus warns, “Nothing Gets in the Way”), they cope with a cranky jalopy (“Pushing the Bus”) and the usual generation gaps. There’s also a loved one’s ludicrous loss that’s right out of Weekend at Bernie’s.

Richard improbably runs into his ex and learns to let go. Olive discovers that, as Grandpa sang, she is “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Above all, she is not one of the contest’s plastic, “perfect” mean girls (Chayce Davis, Jersie Joniak, and Tatum Pearlman) who sadistically boohoo to “Poor Olive” and cloyingly recall the late Jon-Benet Ramsey.

The climax, of course, is the contest. Having been creepily coached by porn-craving Edwin, Olive cuts loose with “Shake Your Badonkadonk,” a kiddie striptease that brings the Hoovers together in the most literal way possible. Technically, they’ve all simultaneously hit rock bottom—but this is a musical, as Finn’s insistent (and melody-deficient) numbers proclaim, so they’re guaranteed a high-energy curtain call.

Though insistently upbeat despite the darker doings, Little Miss Sunshine lacks the sardonic gallows humor of the film. (The fact that the production is sponsored by a Volkswagen dealership, however, is unintentionally amusing.) Survival, it seems, is sufficient sweetness. Director/choreographer Maggie Portman’s playful staging works overtime to endear and console. Nick Sula’s musical direction ably handles a serviceable score where the only memorable number is the ironic title anthem (though Foster’s ballad “What You Left Behind” has its pathos).

You won’t laugh till you cry: The show manages to miss both extremes. But Chicago Theatre Workshop’s Midwest premiere at Edge Theatre does its cast a favor. It showcases 12 talents, peaking together whether the musical deserves it or not.

photos by Joel Maisonet

Little Miss Sunshine
Chicago Theatre Workshop
in association with Fletcher Jones Volkswagen
Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway
ends on June 4, 2017
for tickets, call 773.999.9541 or visit CTW

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

nikki smith May 19, 2017 at 6:06 pm

Interesting. Not Little Mary Sunshine, that I saw so long ago.
I count on your reviews.


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