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Theater Review (San Diego): Little Miss Sunshine at the La Jolla Playhouse

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I got the chance to see a performance of Little Miss Sunshine at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.  I was looking forward to seeing the show for two reasons.  First, I really loved the movie, and second, I really love the composing team James Lapine and William Finn (who also wrote The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee).

It is impossible to watch a play based on a movie without making comparisons to the movie, and Little Miss Sunshine was a fairly close re-telling of the popular independent film.  While I am not a huge fan of the practice of movie-to-musical conversions, this story worked on a number of levels.  The plot has the perfect blend of pathos and light, and the characters are complex and well-drawn.  The fact that the writers manage to find the comedy in a story involving suicide attempts, marital strife, death, disappointment, and existential crisis is what makes this plucky musical work.  I think that every theater-goer can relate to the broader issues these characters are facing, and to watch them endure and come out the other side still holding on to hope, family, and humor?  This is what makes it a truly feel-good show.

The music was a nice complement to the play.  It was not your typical show-tunes fare.  There were no giant torch-songs or snazzy dance numbers.  The songs were not necessarily melodic, though they were thoughtful and poignant.  At many points, it is easy to forget you are actually watching a musical.

The dark themes of the play were offset by several humorous gimmicks that really worked to transition the scenes and keep the play from feeling too heavy.  The yellow VW bus was practically a character in the play – and the set design employed several buses of various sizes to show their trek across the country.  There was also a “Greek chorus” of self-help devotees who sang in between scenes, and who played various minor characters throughout the play.

A stand-out portion of the musical, for me, was the beauty pageant, which was very reminiscent of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This was a bright spot in a second act that was a bit long for my taste.

The acting was superb.  I confess that I am typically annoyed by child actors but the young Georgi James brought the perfect amount of sweetness and light to the cast.  Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson were spot-on as the frustrated and harried couple struggling with dissatisfaction in their work and in their marriage.  I loved Alan Arkin’s depiction of the grandpa in the movie so much that I wondered if it would be a distraction for me, but Dick Latessa was perfect as the gruff and loveable old man.  But the standout, for me, was Malcolm Gets, who brought such a perfect blend of angst and humor to the role of the depressed academic.

At its core, Little Miss Sunshine is a show about finding hope and humor in the midst of life’s disappointments.  The combination of a complex story with well-drawn and well-acted characters, along with a beautiful score and clever staging, make this musical one that will likely delight audiences of all ages.

Playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through March 27; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

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