Musical versions of films seem to be one of the newest theatre trends, and here we have the tale of the dysfunctional Hopper family given a bit of stage sparkle.I’m not familiar with the source material, which feels a little dark at times and at odds with the cheery marketing for this production.
Still, as young Olive (Evie Gibson at this performance, who acted and sang well) qualifies for the Little Miss Sunshine finals in California, and we join her and her family in the journey from New Mexico, the story easily unfolds.
Richard (Gabriel Vick, veteran of a variety of musicals from Sunny Afternoon in the West End to A Little Night Music at the Menier) is chasing a book deal which will pull his family out of debt.
His wife Sheryl (Laura Pitt-Pulford, an excellent Charity in 2017’s production of Barnum, and an effective figure of regret here) gave up her personal plans for marriage and pregnancy with son Dwayne (Sev Keoshgerian, who plays act one as a prototype silent teenager before finding his voice in act two).
Then we have Sheryl’s brother Frank (Paul Keating, a bit fey – and stuck with an odd scene where he meets his ex and new husband-to-be – but good at prickly insecurity). He’s professionally successful but personally shaky following the end of a gay affair and a suicide attempt. As I said, a bit dark for a family musical which has children in it.
Granpa Hooper (played with a naughty charm by Gary Wilmot, who I have seen before in Me and My Girl, The Goodbye Girl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and more) has been evicted from an old age facility for doing drugs and chasing women. He has a good bond with Dwayne and Olive, and is quietly supportive of his son’s attempts to make good.
It’s a pity that Wilmot doesn’t really appear in act two, except to offer a moment of slapstick around the final leg to the pageant. His departure allows Vick a touching song about fathers and sons, though, while looking through the things Granpa “left behind”.
The songs are problematic and ill-fitting at times in this production, which only really shows flashes of humour in Granpa’s act one song “The Happiest Guy in the Van”, and in act two’s flashy pageant, where his dance routine for Olive turns into a quasi-strip routine which both reunites the family and gets them ejected from the stage.
Timelines, too, are muddled, with a flashback to Richard and Sheryl’s courting feeling more 1960s than 1980s, yet Dwayne furiously taps on a smartphone, and one of the little girls in competition with Olive is “related to the Kardashians”, while a soundman wears a Nirvana t-shirt from the 1990s.
The set, designed by David Woodhead, with revolve, yellow theme, and band up in the balcony, serves the piece well although the music overpowered the vocals somewhat in the opening ensemble number, “The Way of the World”.
Directed by Arlene McNaught, the small but talented group of musicians bring William Finn’s score to life in this intimate space.
Ultimately, despite the talents on offer – James Lapine’s book, Mehmet Ergen’s direction, and a clearly dedicated cast and crew, Little Miss Sunshine ultimately fails to gel effectively, and has moments which just feel odd in a family show.
When the lead family can be accurately described by Dwayne’s “suicide, cocaine and bankruptcy” tag, it doesn’t really sit well with Olive’s sunny optimism; and as a road trip show, I can’t help but compare it with Violet, which ran earlier in the year at Charing Cross.
Little Miss Sunshine continues at the Arcola until 11 May, then embarks on a UK tour. Photo credits – Manuel Harlan.