Full disclosure: I have not in fact seen the Oscar-winning film on which Little Miss Sunshine the musical is based.
This show made me want to watch it, which has to be a good thing, although it also made me suspect I would prefer the original format. Not because the charming cast of this musical adaptation by Tony winners James Lapine and William Finn don’t give it their all – they’re engaging and likeable, and Lily Mae Denman as Olive manages the considerable feat of being charismatic rather than stage school irritating – but because it is really hard to do whimsical comedy as a stage musical. There is also something of the American South, of the hard-pressed Hoover family’s road trip to a California beauty pageant, that feels lost in translation to the UK stage.
Lucy O’Byrne’s singing voice stood out as Sheryl Hoover, an overworked and under-inspired Albuquerque mum, and Mark Moraghan was mischievously disgraceful as Grandpa. But this Liverpool-born actor, best known for roles in Brookside and as a narrator for Thomas the Tank Engine, was not the only cast member whose drawling New Mexico accent became a little bit ropey at times. In fact, these accents ebbed and flowed somewhat throughout the two hour production. They disappeared entirely on a number of occasions when performers were in full-throated song, while Denman’s valiant efforts to keep hers up on occasion made it tricky to comprehend her lyrics. All that said, there were moments of laugh-out-loud humour, particularly during cameos from Imelda Warren-Green as a scowling bereavement liaison officer and then as the stage-hogging Miss California.
David Woodhead’s set design is smart, and kept a sense of road trip momentum with its use of a rotating stage. And there were glimpses of genuine pathos. Something Better Better Happen, performed by the dejected Hoover family in unison, was the standout song of the evening, and the one that stuck in my head as I walked away from the theatre. The other thing that stuck in my head, however, was a nagging uneasiness with the over-arching message of the show. Yes, Olive subverts expectation when she finally takes the stage at the pageant, but nobody really questions whether it’s a bit gross that she – or any other young girl – is there in the first place. An earlier jibe about her getting fat is met with insufficient pushback. Did this circus really pass for the cathartic moment of fulfilment and family reunification that Sheryl in particular so desperately craved for most of the show? If this was the something better, it was a slim ray of sunshine indeed.
Main image: Richard H. Smith
Little Miss Sunshine is at the Playhouse, Liverpool until September 28, 2019. For more information, click here.