Thanksgiving At The Theatre: Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine Second Stage Theatre

(from L-R: Stephanie J. Block, Rory O’Malley, Hannah Nordberg, Logan Rowland, David Rasche, Will Swenson)

I don’t have such a problem with movie-to-stage adaptations as some other people do. But I think there are certain rules that you should follow when doing so, and above all, future movie-to-stage adapters should keep in mind one important thing;

Do not try to bring the movie to the stage.

When I say this, this is what I mean; do your best to not replicate very specific lines of dialogues (especially jokes, or memorable lines) from the film in question. All you’re doing is taking the audience’s minds off of what they’re watching on stage. One should do their best to use the film as inspiration, and create something vital and new from that.

The problem I found after seeing the musical adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine is that William Finn (Music and Lyrics) and James Lapine (Book and Direction) are trying to have their cake and eat it too. There are hints of the show they’re trying to make, plus hints of them just bringing the movie to the stage. Moments and scenes are just taken verbatim from the screenplay, which does nothing but remind us of the movie, and how much more memorable the scenes were in that context.

And again, there are glimmers of the show that could have been. Take the famous yellow VW Bus from the film. Lapine and his team very creatively decided to just use yellow chairs to symbolize the bus. This restaging of the vehicle might not work for everyone, but I found it a very clever way to create a dynamic vehicle on stage that didn’t look super awkward like a VW replica might have. The moment where the family has to push the bus to get it started, followed by each family member jumping on the bus is staged tremendously, with Lapine’s direction, mixed with Michele Lynch’s choreography and Beowulf Boritt’s projections creates a theatrical moment which truly wows you.

For those not so familiar with Finn’s other work, his musicals Falsettos and A New Brain also follow off-the-wall, damaged individuals. Yet much of their frustration, quirk, and character is expressed through song, with very little actual dialogue in those shows, especially Falsettos. Perhaps this show could have used more musical moments like that, as songs appear too few and far between, with too much of the show existing in transferable dialogue from the film. Scenes were screaming out to be sung in that bouncy, quirky style that Finn does so well.

And the songs that shine here really do shine (There wasn’t a song list in the Playbill, so forgive me for not having specific/correct names for the songs). Stephanie J. Block has a gorgeous song called “Something Better Better Happen” which is gorgeous and aches of the pain of her character, and Rory O’Malley has a fantastic song/scene (“I’m Doing Very Well) confronting his ex-lover (Wesley Taylor) and his academic rival (Josh Lamon) in a men’s bathroom. O’Malley in particular took a very memorable character from the film (played by Steve Carell) and made it his own. The other actors, sadly, stick to the characters as they stand in the movie.

So the potential definitely exists in Little Miss Sunshine, and perhaps by changing more of the scenes into songs, this could be another William Finn/James Lapine classic. One hopes perhaps they will take this show back to the shop and give it another fine-tuning.

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