Little Miss Sunshine: In preview at the Arcola Theatre

Our Rating ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The ultimate in American dysfunctional musical comedy has finally landed in N8’s trendy Arcola Theatre and like an awkward fledgling, it’s as much Big Bird as Golden Eagle. This off-Broadway film-to-stage musical is the latest in a long line of movies-that-became-musicals but while the cast fires on all cylinders (unlike the family’s dilapidated VW camper van) the music, which should be the show’s crowning glory, never quite lives up to what is a sparkling, darkly witty big screen joy.

The book (James Lapine) avoids too much exposition and keeps Act One zipping along nicely with humour drawn from simple, honest observations on a family which owes as much to previous American forebears The Griswolds as to Willy Loman & Sons.

After a slow start, the show really shifts gears in Act Two, when the family has to kidnap a corpse. As musical themes recur, they seem more cogent but are too often functional rather than memorable. While the score sings, it never soars and, like the family’s VW Camper, sometimes stalls.

The performances here are what elevates the show from middle of the road comedy to brilliant romp as we journey along the endless interstate from New Mexico to California headed for a child beauty pageant. Despite a premature exit, Gary Wilmot steals the night as a loveable Grandpa with a penchant for sex & hard drugs, while Paul Keating is sublime as a suicidal lecturer just a little too keen on both his subject and students.

The kids are great across the board and on this preview performance, Olive Hoover was played with panache by Lily Mae Dunman.

Of the songs, the only really memorable moment comes in an end of act one ballad movingly sung by an on-form Laura Pitt-Pulford – but too often the score lacks melody and composer William Finn never reaches the heights of his work in Falsettos or the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The small band above the stage executes the score well, and costumes, lighting and set design make good use of both the space and budget available.

The final scenes (including a star turn from Imelda Warren-Green as both a miserable hospital registrar and deliciously OTT Miss California) are joyous, although for me, Little Miss Sunshine’s routine never quite lives up to the movie.

Gabriel Vick (Richard) and Sev Keoshgerian (Dwayne) round off a great cast in a musical that at its best is warm, funny, charmingly irreverent but which musically never truly soars.

Booking until 11 May 2019
Arcola Theatre

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