The hit family road-trip comedy, Little Miss Sunshine has been brought to the stage, the UK premiere as an adventurous musical. Jonathan Penney reviews:

The concept of a ‘road-trip’ musical is an ambitious feat to accomplish successfully, but that is the magic of live theatre – being able to transport audiences and recreate unlikely scenarios in smaller spaces. Little Miss Sunshine does this favourably, using the intimate setting of the Arcola Theatre to its advantage.

The Hoover family travel to a variety of destinations across America, taking the audience with them as witnesses to their unfortunate events and family breakdown. A stripped-back version of a VW van is the main centrepiece in David Woodhead‘s design, deployed creatively to push the narrative along.

Little Miss Sunshine Arcola Theatre

The cast of Little Miss Sunshine (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan

Little Miss Sunshine begins as a family attempting normality while their world begins to crumble around them. Credit cards are maxed out and  numerous family issues are taking their toll on  parents Richard (Gabriel Vick) and Sheryl (Laura Pitt-Pulford). Meanwhile, Uncle Frank (Paul Keating) is newly out of hospital after attempting suicide, an issue that the production does not deal with well.

A few themes in the performance approach real-life personal problems, but James Lapine‘s book seems unsavoury and unnecessary around these tragic circumstances. In contrast, William Finn‘s score of the opening is bland and uninspiring, with the only highlight being the ballad ‘Always Makes Me Proud’, where the young married couple consider their future and what they desire in life. But this is quickly followed by a highly anticlimactic ending to the first act, one that leaves the audience feeling bewildered and underwhelmed.

Gary Wilmot, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Gabriel Vick & Paul Keating (image courtesy of Manuel Harlan)

Following the interval, the show differs completely and becomes both entertaining and uplifting. Witnessing the Hoover family rally around young Olive (Sophie Hartley-Booth) as she performs her heart out at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is both humorous and uplifting. Hartley-Booth plays Olive with so much charm and cuteness that the audience are consistently rooting for her. Finn’s songs suit the frantic situation that the erratic family find themselves in, and the cast finally get to have some fun within their roles.

The issue with Little Miss Sunshine is that both acts are vastly different. Theatre that captures the importance of family can be such a special concept to watch unfold, but this roadtrip musical doesn’t do much until too late in the show, by which time the audience has quickly lost interest.

★★★☆☆

Little Miss Sunshine plays at the Arcola Theatre until 11 May 2019. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the venue website.