Arcola Theatre, London – until 11 May 2019
When it comes to certain films it seems obvious that a great musical could be made out of them, adaptations of Heathers and Legally Blonde for example made perfect sense as their subject matter fit the genre well. But Little Miss Sunshine is a less obvious example as it’s an indie film from 2006 which starred Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell and has a story revolving around a dysfunctional family who enter their daughter in to a beauty pageant, and which deals with mental illness, substance abuse, marital issues and death.
Writers James Lapine and William Finn have managed to translate the film in to a musical with aplomb though, and extra kudos must go to them as it’s a road movie with a lot of scenes set in the vehicle they travel in, which must have been no easy feat to keep interesting but they do so with what seems like ease.
The storyline is more complex than it initially seems too, as the family decide to travel to 500 miles from Albuquerque so that Olive can enter the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, but Richard and Sheryl’s marriage is at breaking point, Sheryl’s father is a little too fond of sniffing cocaine, son Dwayne hasn’t spoken for 85 days as his parents won’t allow him to become a test pilot, and Sheryl’s brother Frank is recently out of hospital after a failed suicide attempt. Impressively the play doesn’t offer pat solutions to all of their problems either, but it does offer hope, at least for most of the characters, and the finale is definitely a very satisfying and happy one.
The songs keep it punchy and mostly lighthearted, and nearly all are catchy numbers that you’ll find yourself humming on the journey home, the best of which is a cynical but charming opening number called ‘The Way Of The World’ which suggests you should never be optimistic if you want life not to disappoint you.
A close second is the affecting ‘Something Better Better Happen’, while undoubtedly the funniest is Grandpa’s paean to the joys of sex, ‘The Happiest Guy In The Van’. There really isn’t a bad song among them though, and when Dwayne eventually breaks his vow of silence it’s with a stunning track, while simplistic ‘What You Left Behind’ is incredibly touching as well.
The actors are all on fantastic form, Gary Wilmot’s the most famous name in the cast and he once again proves why TV’s loss has been musical theatre’s gain, he’s extremely likeable as the wayward Grandpa who’s perhaps not the best role model for Olive but dear god is it clear he loves her to pieces.
Laura Pitt-Pulford’s also superb as the rock in nearly everyone’s life who’s yearning for more out of her own, Gabriel Vick’s equally strong as her husband who hopes to make it big despite perhaps not having the talent to do so, and Paul Keating as Frank is better than Steve Carrell was in the role, which is an enormous compliment if you haven’t seen the movie. The role of Olive meanwhile rotates with three different actresses taking it on but tonight Lily Mae Denman performed and she was outstanding, and I’d be amazed if she didn’t go on to big, big things.
If there’s a minor issue it’s that it doesn’t explore Frank’s reaction to meeting his ex-boyfriend and the latter’s new boyfriend in as much depth as it could have and the scene is quickly glossed over, but that’s a very minor quibble about a play which is enormously enticing. It’s impressively directed with a high energy level, the songs are so good that I hope a soundtrack CD is soon released, and overall it’s a very solid four-star musical I could easily imagine transferring to the West End and being a big hit.
Little Miss Sunshine is at the Arcola Theatre until the 11th of May, and tickets can be bought by clicking here: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/little-miss-sunshine/