Antonio DeJesus (from left), Brian Altman, Tim Tavcar, Kristin Netzband, Derrick Winger and Poppy Wadenpfuhl

“Little Miss Sunshine” – a wonderfully idiosyncratic 2006 Academy Award-winning indie film – has been turned into an ambitious but poorly conceived and poorly received musical by otherwise successful composer William Finn and writer James Lapine.

Like the movie, the musical features a family of endearing misfits who put aside their respective dysfunction – father Richard’s misguided but determined optimism; his randy and radical father’s fondness for cocaine; mother Sheryl’s forlorn disillusionment; her brother Frank’s suicidal tendencies; and their angry teenage son Dwayne’s vow of silence – in an effort to fulfill seven year old Olive’s unrealistic dream of winning the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant.

The Hoover family drives 800 miles, from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California, in a deteriorating vintage Volkswagen bus with the hope of getting to the pageant on time and creating, disgruntledly, a collective and potentially healing sense of purpose.

But the musical, which lasted just a month Off-Broadway in 2013, lacks the film’s defining melancholic eccentricity, its characters’ brooding deadpan presentation, and its co-directors’ affectionate touch. In their place is a bland, often clunky musical comedy that attempts to transfer a road trip to the spatial restrictions of the stage.

The issue to be addressed in the current production of “Little Miss Sunshine” is whether director Jonathan Kronenberger, musical director Patrick Wickliffe and their team can resuscitate this musical the way Blank Canvas Theatre did with the similarly mediocre and low-budgeted “Debbie Does Dallas,” “Psycho Beach Party” and “The Texas Chainsaw Musical” under artistic director Patrick Ciamacco’s supervision.

The answer is yes, albeit in bits and pieces.

One bit is a running gag that requires the ensemble to routinely jump-start the broken-down van, which is represented by six chairs with swivel casters placed against a painted backdrop of a desert vista bordered by panels of a road map. Their sprinting alongside and jumping into the moving van is inventive but it is downright hysterical given Antonio DeJesus’ brilliant pantomime as Dwayne.

Amidst the many throw-away moments and musical numbers that plague this show is a clever encounter in a rest stop bathroom where Frank, played perfectly by Brian Altman, happens to meet his former student/ex-boyfriend and the pompous academic superstar who stole him. Altman’s “How Have I Been?” and Adam Graber and Robert Pierce’s comedic performances are show-stopping.

Setting each character’s personal tribulations to song is not this musical’s strong suit, with the saccharine lullaby “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” performed by Tim Tavcar as Grandpa as a less-than-shining example. But “Something Better Better Happen” and its reprise at the end the first act are stunning due to gorgeous harmonies delivered by Kristin Netzband as Sheryl, Derrick Winger as Richard, Poppy Wadenpfuhl as Olive, and Altman’s Frank. This song is composer Finn’s finest work since “The I Love You Song” in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” sung by another Olive and her parents.

A genuine highlight of this staging is the priceless appearance of the "mean girls" -- Avery Jankowski, Taya Offut Decker, Lyric Zeager and Cora Barcelona. They taunt Olive in the flashback number “Poor Olive” and appear as wonderfully vacuous “Little Miss Sunshine” contestants alongside a perfectly over-the-top pageant host and a former Miss California, played with delightful abandon by Pierce and Leslie Andrews.

Perhaps the best moment in this musical can be found during the 11th-hour talent portion of the pageant where Olive performs “Shake Your Badonkadonk,” the woefully misguided but deliciously executed striptease that was conceived and choreographed by her Grandpa. Fourth grader Wadenpfuhl is thoroughly charming, in fine voice and spectacularly confident in this and everything she does in this production.

Clearly, there are not enough stellar moments in “Little Miss Sunshine” to piece together a memorable musical. But the talented folks at Blank Canvas find or create the ones that are and bring them boldly to the stage.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman.


Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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