The attitude of splitting people into winners and losers is a distinctly American phenomena that inspired Michael Arndt’s screenplay about the Hoover family, a band of misfits fighting against the belief that they are exemplary losers. Adapted into a musical by James Lapine and William Finn, Little Miss Sunshine follows this bland family in their bright yellow VW van from New Mexico to California for the competition of their lives.
Gathered around the dinner table with a KFC spread, the Hoovers receive news of youngest Olive (Kiera Dzeparoski) being accepted to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California to which the whole family must pile into the van, rather than flying because of cost, because Grandpa (John Grinston) can’t miss out on the event he’s trained Olive for, Frank (Julian Ramundi) can’t be left alone after trying to kill himself, Dwayne (Christopher O’Shea) can’t be trusted unsupervised, Richard (Martin Grelis) is the only one who can drive a stick, and Sheryl (Fiona Pearson) is the only one who can hold them all together.
Set design from David Marshall-Martin imagines an abstract landscape of road signs and a long stretch of horizon where faces can appear in the clouds like the soothing instructions from Map Bitch (Sarah Furnari). The hulking presence of the yellow van centres a lot of the action in its three rows of seats within which the family sleep, play games, and interrogate each other.
The 800 mile trip is nothing if not eventful starting with deeply uncomfortable conversations about sex and death before the van breaks down and Richard’s book deal falls through and then finishing with the death and kidnapping of Grandpa. The stage adaptation stays true to all the major plot points and the darkly funny tone of the original but with songs that introduce background information about character’s motivations and a flashback to Sheryl and Richard’s early days together. In moments of conflict, three mean girls (Grace Ryan, Aneke Golowenko, Ellacoco Hammer McIver) intrude on Olive’s thoughts to mock her in song while, in a trick of fate, Frank runs into his ex-lover Joshua (Adam van den Bok) in a gas station bathroom where his current boyfriend Larry (Gavin Leahy) joins in for a braggy melody.
Direction from Deborah Jones attempts to harness the oddities of this family including Grandpa’s eccentric antics, Dwayne’s anti-social vow of silence, and Richard’s tone-deaf can-do attitude but the production can’t escape a feeling of being rushed through to the climax. Emotional beats and pointed punchlines are skipped through to prioritise the exposition of the musical numbers but it leaves the characterisations feeling undercooked and dampens the convivial atmosphere of the quirky Hoovers.
Ramundi’s performance is tuned very well for the deadpan, self-deprecating Uncle Frank which plays off O’Shea’s angsty intellectual teen bit with a recognisable humour. Grinston and Dzeparoski are crowd favourites with their sweet rapport and blanket acceptance of each other. The mix of innocence and trust between the two prepares well for the reveal of their secret project: Olive’s risqué dance routine for the talent portion of the pageant.
What works so well about Little Miss Sunshine and why the text resonates with audiences is the exploration of how dysfunction circles back to ordinariness in the family ecosystem. The cracks of their disparate personalities only allows their love for each other to shine out more brightly.
Little Miss Sunshine is running at New Theatre from November 12th – December 14th