Review - Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola Theatre
Little Miss Sunshine is a fizzy - and admittedly occasionally fuzzy - little ray of musical sunshine. It is as eccentrically imperfect as the family it portrays who embark on a road trip from New Mexico to California in a wonky VW minibus van that's prone to breaking down so that the young daughter can enter a kids beauty contest. Yet, like them, its very fallibility is part of its generous wallop of charm; they are characters and a show that you want to root for.
Especially one with composer/lyricist William Finn in the driving seat. There are few quirkier composers working today, one who digs deep into personality so as to reveal his own: there's an open-hearted honesty and personal vulnerability to his songs, particularly about damaged people that are his forte in shows like Falsettos (his masterpiece that combines two one-act musicals March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland that has still unaccountably never been seen in its entirety here) and the wonderful A New Brain (literally about a damaged person, since it revolves around a man who has a brain haemorrhage).
Little Miss Sunshine is a show that wears its heart on its sleeve; every single character, apart from little Olive who seeks the beauty prize of the title role, is fundamentally flawed. They're also individually chasing their own parallel dreams. Dad Richard is trying to have his self-help book of personal empowerment published as a book; Olive's older brother Dwayne is now deliberately mute, his head buried in Nietzsche, dreaming of being a fighter pilot; mom Sheryl is worn down by their mounting debts (and the absence of a physical relationship with her husband) and hoping for an escape; her brother Frank is recovering from a suicide attempt after his male partner leaves him; and grandpa will just settle for some fresh supplies of porn.
They're each drawn, in James Lapine's book based on the 2006 film of the same name that was written by Michael Arndt (who won an Oscar for his efforts), in various shades of disappointment. But this is a story about facing down those setbacks -- and soldiering on. I'd even call it Chekhovian if that wasn't to cast too gloomy a pall over a show that is in fact, moment to moment, full of delight.
And in a joyously resourceful production by Arcola artistic director Mehmet Ergen, the family come to life with lovingly understated warmth by a cast that's led by the luminous Laura Pitt-Pulford, radiating a wounded vulnerability as mom Sheryl, and the superb, strong-voiced Gabriel Vick as dad Richard. There's also touching support from Paul Keating as distraught Frank, Sev Keoshgerian as mute Dwayne, and the wonderful Gary Wilmot as grandpa. The alternating cast of child actors saw Olive played on press night by the entirely delightful and totally assured Sophie Hartley-Booth.
Much as Priscilla Queen of the Desert - another road musical, also based on a prior film - was about the journey as much as the destination, this is a bus well worth jumping aboard.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan