Designer Beowulf Boritt’s appropriate single set for Little Miss Sunshine is a map of Interstate 40, which snakes from the lip of the stage and wraps around the playing space to extend up over the audience’s heads. But this limp musical retread of the 2006 indie comedy about a dysfunctional family’s healing road trip refuses to take us on any kind of journey. Given that composer William Finn and writer-director James Lapine previously collaborated on such oddball delights as Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, this stubbornly charmless show is a sad letdown.
The movie was written by Michael Arndt and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Picked up by Fox Searchlight out of Sundance, it went on to become one of the year’s legitimate sleeper hits, grossing $100 million worldwide and landing four Oscar nominations, including best picture. It won for Arndt’s original screenplay and for supporting actor Alan Arkin.
The stage musical adaptation premiered in early 2011 at La Jolla Playhouse and was expected to bounce from there to Broadway. But those plans cooled following the tepid critical response. The reworked show turns up Off Broadway at Second Stage with a new cast, fresh set design and some song substitutions, streamlined from two acts that ran close to 2½ hours into a single act clocking in at one hour, 40 minutes. But rarely have so many talented people worked so hard trying to breathe life into such stillborn material. The songs are dreary, the staging inert and the characters never come alive.
What distinguished the movie was the light touch of the co-directors, the writer and their perfectly chosen cast. They expertly juggled the story’s comic quirks with its strain of melancholy as the Hoover family traveled in the pressure cooker of a broken-down VW bus from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California.
The itinerary and the vehicle are identical here, but Lapine’s book misses the poignancy of this clan growing apart while chafing at individual frustrations and disappointments. These are people too busy assigning blame to seek solace in one another until they share an unlikely catharsis during a children’s beauty pageant. That story should be right up Finn and Lapine’s alley, especially since in Spelling Bee they so appealingly mined a similar vein of misfits finding self-acceptance through community. But from the clunky opening number, “The Way of the World,” in which the Hoovers outline their dead dreams and thwarted desires, it’s hard to warm to this bunch of shrill depressives.
The characters are lifted wholesale from the movie, albeit stripped of their richer nuances and updated to post-economic crisis America. Frazzled Sheryl (Stephanie J. Block) wrestles with diminished belief in her unemployed husband Richard (Will Swenson), who maintains that his “Ten Steps to Success” blog is a book deal away from making them rich. Their son, Dwayne (Logan Rowland), is an angry teen who has taken a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of joining the Air Force Academy to become a test pilot. Grandpa (David Rasche) is an unrepentant old horndog, kicked out of the retirement home for illegal substance abuse. And Sheryl’s gay brother, Frank (Rory O’Malley), is a preeminent Proust scholar on suicide watch since his grad-student lover dumped him for an academic rival.
The only member of the household untarnished by life’s bruises is sweetly optimistic Olive (Hannah Nordberg), the Hoovers’ 10-year-old daughter. However, even she comes with her own demons here, in the mildly amusing form of a chorus of pageant mean girls. They try to get inside Olive’s head after the bespectacled string bean flukes her way into the finals of the tween beauty contest that supplies the show’s title.
Fittingly, Olive is the most likeable character onstage in Nordberg’s disarming, not-too-cute performance. O’Malley (The Book of Mormon) also benefits from having some of the funnier lines, though Frank’s extended encounter with his calculating ex-boyfriend (Wesley Taylor) and the gloating toad who stole him (Josh Lamon) really only serves to halt the bumpy journey’s momentum. (And to make us wonder how shallow Frank must be to have lost his head for such a preening pretty-boy climber.)
Lapine pads the action with useless backstory, returning to the early days of Sheryl and Richard’s relationship to show that the marriage began on a note of uncertainty, which now appears prophetic. And developments with Grandpa prompt Richard to reflect on his father’s unavailability while he was growing up. But the show is unpersuasive when it attempts to probe the emotional inner lives of its characters; their talky songs mostly striking rote notes. The melodic exception is Sheryl’s “Something Better Better Happen,” which exposes a genuine yearning to which the material elsewhere only pays lip service.
The failure of the creative team to connect more fully with this story and its characters is especially evident in the comedy numbers. In the most leaden of them, poor Rasche labors to get laughs out of that tired standby, the randy geriatric, as he counsels his sullen grandson to “Have Sex.” And as much as Nordberg valiantly puts her heart, soul and booty into it, few people are likely to go home humming “Shake Your Ba-Donk-a-Donk.”
Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York (runs through Dec. 15)
Cast: Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, Rory O’Malley, David Rasche, Hannah Nordberg, Logan Rowland, Josh Lamon, Jennifer Sanchez, Wesley Taylor, Alivia Clark, Victoria Dennis, Miranda McKeon, Leonay Shepherd
Director: James Lapine
Book: James Lapine, based on the film written by Michael Arndt
Music and lyrics: William Finn
Set and projection designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Jennifer Carpo
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Choreographer: Michele Lynch
Music director: Vadim Feichtner
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Presented by Second Stage Theatre