This afternoon, I had a chance to see the Off-Broadway musical Little Miss Sunshine at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre.
Based off of the 2006 film of the same name, Little Miss Sunshine is the humorous, and at times heart-breaking, tale of the Hoover family’s weekend trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California so that nine-year-old Olive can compete in a pageant she qualified for while visiting relatives. What’s special about this family is that none of them are special in that they are dysfunctional and unglamorous just like the rest of us. Two parents, two kids, a formerly suicidal gay uncle and grandpa who abuses drugs travel in a barely running VW van on a long road trip. The dad is unemployed and desperate for a book deal for a 10-step motivational plan he keeps using on anyone who will listen. The son has taken a vow of silence until he can get into flight school. The daughter wears glasses, has a bit of a tummy, and is the antithesis of any girl you see on that Toddlers and Tiaras show. We laugh with them because we can relate to them. We laugh at them because it’s easier to laugh at their hardships than deal with our own.
Based on the cast and source material, I had high expectations going into this show and can honestly admit that they were met. Little Miss Sunshine wasn’t flawless, but isn’t that the point? With no act breaks or intermission, we are with the Hoovers every step of the way (or every mile they drive, rather), for better or worse.
I wondered how they were going to handle the family being in that VW van for a majority of the musical (for if you’ve seen the movie, you know that the van is a major set piece) and was enamored when six yellow chairs on wheels were rolled around the stage in formation to represent the van (said chairs also were used as chairs and beds). The actors basically Flinstoned themselves about the stage, but it didn’t seem silly – it was practical and believable. Those chairs were the van and those actors were the Hoover family.
The cast was very strong. I had seen Will Swenson, Rory O’Malley and Wesley Taylor on stage before, but it was great to see them in different roles than I was used to. I was most excited to see Stephanie J. Block, as she is a performer I had always wanted to see in person but had missed out on before.
Swenson and Block played Richard and Sheryl Hoover. They looked like parents – hell, they looked like my parents – and it was easy to believe that they had been together for awhile and were dealing with a lot of crap that adults don’t want to be dealing with on top of having two rambunctious children and live-in family members (her brother and his dad). The stress was written all over their faces, but so was the underlying love that ultimately kept the family together. Both Swenson and Block are strong actors with equally powerful vocals and it was a pleasure to see them act opposite each other. (Throughout the show I wondered why Will Swenson and Matt Bomer haven’t been cast as brothers in something. Someone needs to make this happen. Please and Thank You.)
O’Malley played Frank, Sheryl’s gay brother who had recently tried to slit his wrists because of relationship problems. This production delves a little deeper into Frank’s story than the movie did (with the addition of a couple scenes between Frank and his former lover, as well as Frank and his nephew) and the audience understands a little more (if not a little better) about why he did what he did and how he’s doing now. O’Malley was great, but I couldn’t help but think that he reminded me an awful lot of Jesse Tyler Ferguson for some reason… (I’ll blame the facial hair and how they have similar dialogue/lyric delivery).
David Rasche, an actor who I was not familiar with, played the grandpa (the role that won Alan Arkin a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the film). He got a lot of laughs because the character is so inappropriate, but I also appreciated the bits of scenes where he was able to be serious. (I often say how I think comedic actors/roles are at their best during dramatic moments.)
Olive and Dwayne Hoover were played by Hannah Nordberg and Logan Rowland, respectively. Nordberg was a delight as Olive. I thought she projected well and definitely held her own on stage among the more seasoned actors. She had a great handle on the comedic moments, but also shined during Olive’s more dramatic scenes. Rowland was great as Dwayne. As Dwayne is silent for half the show, Rowland’s facial expressions and body language were vital in getting that character across and I thought he pulled it off. Dwayne was always one of (if not) my favorite character in the show and though his freak out was a little less underwhelming on stage, it still made an impact.
So, I mentioned Wesley Taylor earlier… he had a small role as Frank’s former boyfriend and as a surfer-esque dude who works at the pageant. Let’s just say my body was not ready to see his abs underneath his neon pink polo shirt, but his voice is just as stunning as I remembered it to be. (I saw him in The Addams Family when it premiered in Chicago a few years ago… “I’m Crazier Than You” was on repeat for awhile.)
Sadly the Playbill does not list the songs from the show, so I don’t know any of their names (and I’m too lazy to Google it right now…). BUT, I can say that the music was good and if there happens to be a soundtrack someday, I’d totally get it because the voices of these performers are top notch and the lyrics were solid. The group numbers were great, but I was a little Meh about the song Richard sang about his dad. That was just not the best sounding note for Swenson to end with, you know?
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it ends right after the pageant. And if you remember the pageant… well, then you’ll be pleased with how the musical’s pageant ends too. I had a grin on my face that you couldn’t have smacked off.
When the show was over, our performance had a moderated Q&A with Stephanie J. Block. (I was unaware of this prior to being seated… there was a note in everyone’s Playbill.) Though she said a lot of “actor-y” things about finding her character and the different productions of the show leading up to this one, I still found it to be wholly enjoyable and informative. It was fun to hear her speak so highly of the show and her cast and it very much seemed that this was a labor of love for everyone involved. (I kind of ran into Block in the lobby after the show. I let her duck out the exit ahead of me and she told me to have a good night, so I told her that the show was great and she thanked me.)
If you liked the movie, then you’re sure to enjoy the musical. Little Miss Sunshine is playing at Second Stage Theatre (305 W 43rd St, New York, NY) through December 8, 2013.