'Little Miss Sunshine'

The sun shines throughout "Little Miss Sunshine," but the necessary darkness is absent.

The sun shines throughout “Little Miss Sunshine,” but the necessary darkness is absent. La Jolla’s musicalization of the 2006 movie, launching a hoped-for eastward road trip, boasts David Korins’ brightly cartoony designs and a typically tinkly William Finn score. Yet no one seems to have noticed how Michael Arndt’s Oscar-winning saga of a young girl’s odyssey to pageant immortality is fueled by anger, its family dysfunction the product of devastating disappointments. Unless and until librettist-helmer James Lapine raises both stakes and heat, this tuner will remain a limp retread of robust source material.

Hewing closely to the pic, Lapine sends the quarrelsome Hoovers from Albuquerque to Redondo in a vintage VW bus propelled, like Fred Flintstone’s sedan, by feet. As road signs whiz by, daughter Olive – relaxed, natural Georgi James, the show’s most winning component by a country mile – plays car games while pondering whether she’s too pudgy for success.

Her psychic baggage is trumped by that of her relatives. Sullen teen Dwayne (Taylor Trensch) hates the world. Melancholy scholar Uncle Frank (Malcolm Gets) recently slit his wrists for love of a student. Coke-sniffing Grandpa (Dick Latessa) is always inappropriate, while matriarch Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson) just wants to keep it together until husband Richard (Hunter Foster) can redeem a string of failed careers as a self-help guru.

The movie’s bus is a pressure cooker primed to explode. But unaccountably, the tuner takes every opportunity to soften and “humanize” characters whose power, as Arndt was careful to define, actually derives from arrant narcissism. Lapine tamps down the conflicts to mere bickering, summoning up sentimental musical numbers to turn the characters all cuddly and blunt their edge.

Comparisons are generally odious, but when so much effort has been made to Xerox-copy the pic’s superficial characteristics, surely it’s legit to point out the machine is low on toner. In the face of Foster’s hapless simp and Thompson’s bitter scold, sorely missed are Greg Kinnear’s reservoir of fury and insecurity as Richard’s world topples, and Toni Collette’s earth mother roaring. Latessa’s gentle underplaying is welcome, but he’s a salty dear where Alan Arkin was a truth-telling irritant.

Concessions to musical comedy tropes further dilute the material. The plot demands we see Richard’s “Ten Steps for Success” as banal and his dream a delusion. But when it’s introduced in an exultant opening number by a sextet of eager disciples hawking mail-order books and sweatshirts, it seems like a done-deal moneymaker. So much for Richard’s desperation to sell his Refuse to Lose system to a distributor, nominally the inciting factor in the family’s tailspin.

Those six choristers prove useful in taking on all the subsidiary roles, but they’re written in cliched shorthand: East Asian convenience store operator; bulimic beauty queen; Gauleiter pageant director; horny Scoutmaster. The heart sinks lower with each stale caricature.

In the end, that which played as outrageous on film – the purloining of a corpse out a window, for instance – just sits there on stage, affectless. Even Olive’s turn to shine on the runway with her family, a moment you’d figure couldn’t miss, falls short. James is terrific, but since each Hoover has already had a sentimental life-changing epiphany – Richard’s, a particularly wrongheaded musical memorial to Gramps – there’s no surprise or lift in their decision to cut loose.

The finale, Step #5 on Richard’s list, is entitled “No More Sugarcoating.” Good advice.

Little Miss Sunshine

La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla; 492 seats; $100 top

Production

A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by William Finn, and book and direction by James Lapine. Choreography, Christopher Gattelli; musical director-conductor, Vadim Feichtner.

Creative

Sets, David Korins; costumes, Jennifer Caprio; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; music arranger, Will Aronson; production stage manager, J. Philip Bassett. Opened, reviewed March 4, 2011. Runs through March 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Olive Hoover - Georgi James
Richard Hoover - Hunter Foster
Sheryl Hoover - Jennifer Laura
Thompson Frank - Malcolm Gets
Dwayne Hoover - Taylor Trensch
Grandpa - Dick Latessa
With: Bradley Dean, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Eliseo Roman, Andrew Samonsky, Sally Wilfert, Zakiya Young, Felicity Bryant, Sophia DeLange, Madi Rae DiPietro, Kishka Grantz.

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