As Tevye said, "It isn't easy."
One rather interesting byproduct of the crush is that I find myself writing reviews of shows that I saw about a month ago. (I still have Murder for Two and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder in the pipeline. Both are absolutely delightful, and I'm going back to see Gentleman's Guide again next week. Watch for my reviews.)
The interesting part is that, as I return to consider these pieces critically, I find that some of them have really stuck with me, creating a lasting impression of the grand old time that I had while attending, for instance, both Murder for Two and A Gentleman's Guide.
And then there's Little Miss Sunshine, the new musical with music and lyrics by William Finn, and with book and direction by James Lapine. The show is just now rounding out an extended engagement at the Second Stage Theatre. The musical is based, of course, on the delightfully quirky 2006 movie "Little Miss Sunshine," but the stage version has had a bit of a rocky development. It played an out-of-town engagement in 2011 at La Jolla Playhouse, and was anything but well-received. The musical has since undergone considerable changes, to the point where only three of the original songs remain.
Despite the show's poorly received tryout, and some pretty dismissive word-of-mouth, I went into Little Miss Sunshine with a hopeful sense of expectation. This is, after all, the team that gave us Falsettos, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. And while I was watching the show, I remember thinking that it was a whole lot more engaging and enjoyable than the advanced word had me expecting.
But unlike both Murder for Two and A Gentleman's Guide, Little Miss Sunshine just hasn't stuck with me. The tone of the show is clear, if not quite as sharp as that of the movie. And the characterizations are vivid and endearing: you're genuinely pulling for these people as they race to make it to California so that little Olive Hooper can participate in the beauty pageant.
Finn is at his best here when crafting quirky uptempo sequences, of which there are thankfully quite a few. But the edges seem a lot softer, the neurosis a bit more tame. Which is unfortunate, because the source material really cries out for edge. His ballads for this show reflect a tad more simple sentiment and earnest cliche than he has exhibited before. Also, Finn would seem to have no ear at all for how young girls speak to each other. His songs for a passel of mean girls who taunt Olive sound like what a sixty-something man might imagine nine-year-old girls sound like, but without having any direct experience in same. In other words, fake and forced.
Director James Lapine keeps the action moving at a fast clip, providing a number of inspired sequences along the way, particularly those involving the family VW microbus, getting it started, and then getting all the folks on board. There are clear Lapine touches in the set design, particularly in the chairs on wheels used here to suggest the family van (greatly reminiscent of the wheeled set pieces he used in Falsettos), which allow for great efficiency in traveling from sequence to sequence. These modular pieces are set amid a genuinely striking unit set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, that comprises a serpentine road map climbing up the back wall, and then snaking onto the ceiling over the audience's head. It's stunning.
The cast for Little Miss Sunshine features a number of usual suspects in the New York City theater world, including Will Swenson as the father, Stephanie J. Block as his wife, and Rory O’Malley as the suicidal Uncle Frank. All extremely professional performers, but, getting back to my point about a lasting impression, I find that none of the performances has really stuck with me, except perhaps for little nine-year-old Hannah Nordberg as Olive.
So, I'm glad Little Miss Sunshine made it to New York, and that I got a chance to see it. But the show, while possessing admitted charms, will very likely not have the staying power of a Falsettos or a Spelling Bee. Even so, I'll take second-rate Finn-Lapine over first-rate work from many of the other teams currently working any day of the week.