Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Musical Comedy Stuck in 2nd Gear

Review:  Little Miss Sunshine

Stephanie J. Block, Rory O'Malley, and Will Swenson prove why they're all Tony-nominated actors as they struggle mightily to overcome Little Miss Sunshine's shortcomings.

Perhaps it's fitting that Little Miss Sunshine, the latest collaboration between director/librettist James Lapine and composer William Finn, fails to live up to expectations.  The new tuner, just like the 2006 independent film on which it is based, examines how a dysfunctional family deals with the dashed expectations of their rather run-of-the-mill lives.  And just like in real life, it is borderline painful to watch hard-working and talented people (in this case, the mostly excellent cast) struggle to overcome the bad hand they've been dealt, which here takes the form of a poorly constructed and tonally confused one-act musical.  Not since 2010's deeply flawed Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has a show sounded so good on paper and so thoroughly failed to deliver on stage.

Like it's filmic counterpart, Little Miss Sunshine tells the story of the unassuming Hoover clan and their cross-country road trip to get 9-year-old Olive (Hannah Nordberg) to the titular beauty pageant.  Family matriarch Sheryl (Stephanie J. Block) works long hours to support her family since her husband Richard (Will Swenson) was laid off of his job.  Richard is hoping to sell the publishing rights to his self-help blog, much to the derision of his foul-mouthed, lascivious father, known only as Grandpa (David Rasche).  Meanwhile Sheryl and Richard's son Dwayne (Logan Rowland) has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his goal of joining the Air Force, and Sheryl's suicidal gay brother Frank (Rory O'Malley) is staying with the family while he recovers from his latest "episode."  When the family finds out that little Olive has been chosen as a last minute contestant, they all pile into the family's VW bus in hopes of making it to the pageant on time.

The source material presents several challenges, none of which are successfully addressed by the creative team.  With the exception of Olive, the family members all seem to barely tolerate one another, giving off the impression they'd rather be anywhere but stuck in a van together.  Yes, the narrative is designed to show these people come to realize how much they love each other, but without even a glimmer of kindness or affection to begin with the first half of the show is a rather miserable experience.  There are hints of interesting and dynamic pairings during the opening scenes, and the show would be better served by expounding on these so there was at least some joy in the opening segments.  For instance, Grandpa may have total disdain for the rest of the Hoover clan, but playing up his affection for Olive would have gone a long way towards making him more bearable (he's easily the show's most insufferable character).  There is an odd bond caused by the shared existentialism of Frank and Dwayne that would be great to see explored further and sooner.  If each character seemed to like at least one other person at the musical's outset, then there would be something to help offset the snarkiness and general misery of what is advertised as a musical "comedy."

Even more devastating is the writing team's inability to settle on a workable tone.  There is a lot of drama and angst on display, but it isn't presented or examined in enough detail for the show to effectively work as serious character piece.  Yet there is enough heavy subject matter - including undertones of marital strife, the burdens of unemployment, and the disappointment of unrealized ambition - that the attempts at comedy never really take off.  The razor sharp wit and gonzo sense of humor so apparent in Lapine's libretto for the duo's last collaboration, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is inexplicably absent for much of the show.  The scenes set during the "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant have this self-aware cheekiness in spades, and are so effective that it makes you retroactively wish the entire production was an equally over-the-top farce. 

Finn's score is easily the least memorable aspect of the show, which is especially disappointing given the composer's sterling work elsewhere.  There are some fine bits of ensemble music scattered throughout, but these sections are few and far between and unfortunately bookended by fairly clunky solo numbers.  Even worse, almost none of the songs have a clear purpose, lessening their dramatic impact.  There is an extended sequence where Frank encounters the man who prompted his suicide attempt, and though Frank claims to have moved on he continually sings about the other man's physical beauty.  Rather than coming across as a believably mixed set of emotions, the song makes Frank seem bipolar and lacks any kind of internal logic.  There is a flashback to before Sheryl and Richard got married that appears designed to show the love they once felt for each other, but consists of the characters being incredibly ambivalent toward one another until suddenly they aren't.  What are intended to be revealing character moments come across as muddy and confused instead, and leave the audience even more confused about who these people truly are.

The cast struggles mightily to rise above the writing's shortcomings, and do a good enough job that you can't help but wish they had better material to work with.  Stephanie J. Block shows a subtleness and range she hasn't often been asked to use, while still finding moments to show off her comedic chops (if only the score allowed her a better showcase for that phenomenal voice).  Rory O'Malley does some of his most affecting work yet as the deeply troubled Frank, and sounds fantastic on his two main duets.  Richard's straight-laced nature robs Will Swenson of the chance to use the utter fearlessness that made him so beguiling in Hair, but it's nice to see such a talented actor push himself in new directions.  Young Hannah Nordberg is cute as a button as Olive, and Logan Rowland conveys plenty of character despite remaining mute for over half of the show.  There are also two scene-stealing turns by Jennifer Sanchez as Linda the "Bereavement Consoler" and as the reigning Miss California, which point to the show that could have been had the authors chosen to fully embrace the quirkiness that turned Spelling Bee into a surprise hit.  The only actor who fails to make much of an impression is David Rasche as Grandpa, who is saddled with the worse material of the bunch and does little to disguise its shortcomings.

Lapine the director comes across better than Lapine the librettist, managing to keep the staging fresh and interesting despite the fact that over half the action takes place in the confines of an old VW bus.  He somehow manages to make actors running in place and miming the pushing of a van exciting, and knows just how to use Beowulf Boritt's deceptively simple set to maximum effect.  There are also fun touches by costumer Jennifer Capiro (who thankfully gets to costume both a swimsuit and eveningwear competition for the 9-year-old pageant girls) and lighting designer Ken Billington.

But ultimately, all of the talent in the world cannot save bad writing, and unfortunately Little Miss Sunshine features some very bad writing by people who should really know better.  Lapine and Finn have been responsible for some of the most innovative small-scale musicals of the past 20 years, not to mention Lapine's incredible collaborations with musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim.  How Lapine and Finn managed to drop the ball so completely remains a mystery, and unfortunately their talented cast and crew are left to pick up the pieces.  Even diehard musical theatre fans can find a better use of their time this fall, given the wealth of innovative and inventive new musicals both on Broadway and Off.

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