By Patrick O’Brien
If a musical theatre writer is not operating on a similar wavelength with his or her source material, all the craftsmanship in the world won’t save them. Dear World; Do I Hear a Waltz?; Big; superbly crafted musicals, all, but written by people uniquely unsuited to justifying their existence.
With all this in mind, eminent craftsmen William Finn and James Lapine adapting Michael Arndt’s indie film sleeper hit Little Miss Sunshine truly ought to be a marriage made in heaven.
Look at the basic plot: “The Hoovers, a quirky family on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown, and with the aid of a busted-up VW minibus, somehow pull through to get their daughter to California for the titular child beauty pageant and, more importantly, come back together.”
“Quirky family pulling through.” That’s Falsettos. That’s A New Brain. That’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Finn and Lapine may have gone down this path before, but have always found something different on each journey. And they certainly have snark to spare to level against the august American institution that is the child beauty pageant.
Why, then, is Little Miss Sunshine, presented by Chicago Theatre Workshop, less a marriage made in heaven and more like, say, the Hoovers, on the brink of divorce?
Maybe it starts off on the wrong foot. A mood of weary resignation is a tricky way for an opening number to captivate its audience. And it otherwise shouldn’t be hard to captivate when that opening number begins with a failed suicide (courtesy of George Keating’s gay Proust scholar) and a line of coke (courtesy of Ken Rubinstein’s randy grandpa). If that resignation was spiked with much more desperation to break out, as matriarch Sharyon Culberson exudes, or even intense denial, as Greg Foster’s failing self-help patriarch pushes, then there’d be some kick. Instead, it builds to a shrug, and peters out from there.
Or maybe it sags too often. Director Maggie Portman largely overcomes the musical’s central staging limitation — that is, mostly setting it inside a moving van — with some nifty box choreography. But, even so, there are awkward gaps and blackouts where there should be a monomaniacal drive to make it to the finish line.
Or maybe the songs are simply scattershot. Sometimes, a good idea, like an imaginary trio of cruel pageant tots, gets ditched. Sometimes, a seeming demand for song in a stretch of dialogue goes unheeded. Pretty much all the time, though, the songs stop and start about as gracefully as that clunky minibus, and represent the otherwise mercurial Finn at his most thirty-two-bar conventional. And — facile and overused as the criticism may be — it’s rather shockingly tuneless.
(A near-sung-through approach a la Falsettos might’ve been better; it would’ve kept Finn’s trademark white-hot nervous energy flowing for the full hundred minutes, and provide consistent insight into the Hoovers’ inner worlds. Instead, the show just feels surprisingly abbreviated.)
It’s a game cast they have: Nobody cannot love a randy grandpa, and therefore, nobody cannot love Rubinstein. Foster and Culberson are appropriately falsely cheery. And the young talent is superb: Sophie Kaegl as pageant daughter Olive is a beacon of pep and optimism; and Kyle Klein II as her older Nietzsche-wannabe brother pulls off being bizarrely endearing, even with the handicap of a self-enforced vow of silence.
But overall, it might just be that maybe the characters and their adapters simply aren’t on the same wavelength. Falsettos involved neurotic bourgeoisie; A New Brain, an epiphanic songwriter; Spelling Bee, adolescent misfit geniuses. It’s hard to see what they saw in the dead-end Hoover family.
Of the bunch, Finn and Lapine only really connect with Frank, the quasi-suicidal Proust scholar. They mine his situation for every ounce of tragicomedy (“You tried to kill yourself?” “Don’t worry, he didn’t try very hard.”) And he gets the best song, the sardonic “How Have I Been,” addressed to the cruel young thing who ran off with his heart.
So, ironically, for a show about a beauty pageant, able writers Finn and Lapine superficially adapted a melancholically charming film. And though stranger things have caught on in Theaterland, it’s hard for “superficial” to justify its existence.
Chicago Theatre Workshop presents “Little Miss Sunshine” through June 4th at the Edge Theatre, 5451 N. Broadway. More information and tickets are available here.