Little Miss Sunshine, the long-anticipated stage adaptation of the 2006 film, wrapped up its run at the Second Stage Theatre this week but those lucky enough to see the quirky off-Broadway musical want to see more. The story follows the lovably dysfunctional Hoover family on a road trip across the Southwest to make their daughter, Olive’s, beauty pageant dreams come true.
Along the way, the family reflects on the (stagnant) state of their lives and learn to find the joy in what seems like a hopeless situation. The beloved quirks that made the film such a standout left fans pondering what a stage version could possibly look like. Here are a few reasons why this film-to-stage adaptation should be revived for a longer run:
1. It’s not the movie. The musical has a tone all its own. Instead of the dark humor that characterizes the film, the stage version opts for a sweeter view. The Hoovers are just as frustrated with their lives onstage as they are onscreen, and their coping mechanisms are similar to their film counterparts, but the stage characters have a semblance of self-control and optimism that isn’t found in the screenplay. Not much of the cursing in the movie makes its way onstage, which leaves Grandpa Hoover scrambling to find more creative ways to offend his family (don’t worry, he still manages).
2. Olive lives up to all your hopes and dreams. Olive, the little girl whose hope keeps everyone else going, is undoubtedly the heart of the show, and the essential key in getting the audience invested in the feelings of the other members of her fractured family. Hannah Nordberg more than delivers in bringing Olive’s spirit to life, which is a tall order for such a cherished, plot-driving character. As is she is passed back and forth between her relatives’ arms in her adorable oversized glasses, it’s hard not to want the whole world for this little girl – and even harder to realize that her dreams for the future may stem way beyond her limited means. Hannah definitely brings her own nuances and intentions to the role that differ from that of the film, but Olive’s trademark persistence and trusting nature remain intact.
3. There’s a sweet imaginary car. Instead of putting an actual yellow VW bus onstage, the actors create one themselves, all through their own body language. A few rows of movable chairs and a steering wheel are just about all there is of the van that takes them across the country, with a GPS map charting (and commenting on) their progress on screens behind them. Remember how in the film, the characters can’t start the van without pushing it first to get it going, and have to run inside one at a time as it gains speed? Yeah, this amazing cast does that all with their imagination – and they pull it off. It’s difficult to describe the choreography (by the talented Michele Lynch) that comes into play to capture a character running with all their might to catch up to an imaginary moving van as their family tries to pull them inside, but it’s something you’ll have to see to believe. Even with all this complicated physical pretend-playing, the scene makes its mark as an emotional high point of the musical as well. Getting the van going and getting everyone inside is the first major act of teamwork that brings the Hoovers together, and the enthusiasm and relief when they achieve it is palpable.
4. The pageant scene is the comedic highlight of the show. When the Hoovers finally arrive at the child beauty pageant that prompted their road trip, we are met with some kind of “Toddlers & Tiaras” fever dream, and it is as laughably creepy as you’d expect. This is one part of the show where the dark humor that is laced throughout the film surfaces. No commentary is necessary for us to grasp the hilarity of the child pageant circuit’s twisted nature as we watch the entire competition that Olive has partaken in. From their painted-on smiles to their bizarre “talents,” the inclusion of Olive’s competitors as strut their stuff in the competition brings the musical to another level. An intentionally off-kilter opening number to the pageant sung by the grown-up Miss California and a creepily charming emcee round out the situation’s absurdity. Is the eerie perfection of the pageant girl characters overstated for humor in the show, or are real-life child beauty queens really that terrifyingly mannequin-like? The jury is still out, but the end result is comical nonetheless.
5. The cast is top-notch. In the realm of New York theatre, especially at a venue like Second Stage, it’s natural to assume that top-rate actors will be stepping into the roles. However, that’s not always the case, and true pros of the stage are few and far between. The enthusiasm and focus of Little Miss Sunshine‘s cast spills right off the stage and into the house, adding all kinds of energy to the audience they are sharing the small space with. With such a minimalist set, their ability to create complex, emotionally charged scenes with few physical props is really what brings the script to life and makes it compelling. The show is lead by Broadway veterans like Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, Rory O’Malley, Wesley Taylor, David Rasche, Josh Lamon and Logan Rowland.
6. The creative team is award-winning. James Lapine and William Finn teamed up for this production after working together on shows like Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and A New Brain. Lapine, who has also had a close working relationship with Stephen Sondheim, wrote the book and directed. Finn wrote the music lyrics. The duo has won Tony Awards for their work together.
7. It’s all about winners. As Olive’s dad Richard Hoover will tell you, winners never give up. They believe in what they are capable of no matter what, even when things are less than perfect. Each of the Hoovers learn this in their own way as they realize that being a winner is a matter of attitude – and that anyone can choose to be one at any time. Though it may be a cliche lesson, it’s one that most of us easily forget as life wears us down, which is why it is so exciting to learn along with Olive as she discovers it for the first time.