Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Little Miss Sunshine

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, Book by James Lapine. Music and Lyrics by William Finn. At the New Theatre, King St. Newtown. 12 November - 14th December.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is a musical adaptation, by James Lapine and William Finn, of the 2006 film, that won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Michael Arndt, with a stellar ensemble cast that included Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin and introducing Abigail Breslin. The film became a 'cult' hit. The musical originated in San Diego, in California in 2011, and evolved later on Off-Broadway in 2013.

James Lapine has written libretti for musicals: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1984), INTO THE WOODS (1987), FALSETTOS (1992), and PASSION (1994). William Finn's most successful music work was FALSETTO LAND (1990) with a further expansion in 1994 to create FALSETTOS that won Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Book.

The story is of a car journey/road trip with a dysfunctional family on board, attempting to fulfil their daughter Olive's dream to compete in a Beauty Pageant. It is an 800 mile journey and what with the eclectic mix of temperaments in this Volkswagon combie van much happens and is revealed. The plot has a congested number of crises which all move through with a smile of sunshine beckoning them to hope that all's well that may end well.

There is a strained marriage (Richard - Martin Grelis, Sheryl - Fiona Pearson), a failing family business, a depressed son (Dwayne - Christopher O'Shea), a suicidal homosexual brother (Frank - Julian Ramundi), a grandpa (Edwin - John Grinston) with iconoclastic tendencies - a happy heroin taker - who flouts many other conventions of the law, recommending happily that participation in a lot of sex is a solution for good living, with his solo song: THE HAPPIEST GUY IN THE VAN (and who, by-the-way, dies mid-trip and is swathed 'mummy'-like in the back seat of the van, as the family's circumstance-need to get to the Beauty Pageant can't wait for a funeral interning!), and a young Miss Sunshine (Olive - Kiera Dzeparoski) who has the permanent optimism of the 'blessed' with an iron-welded deflecting innocence that becomes the adhesive that keeps this family together and surviving - just. (They don't know the future of the USA that they will be facing in little over half a decade. This is an example where ignorance can be a bliss. We are not so lucky, we are not ignorant about our present day circumstances at all and tremble with anticipatory anxiety.)

The film and now the musical is a cute counter-cultural experience that stretches itself into a 'camp' comedy that has a kind-of similar feel as the very famous film of HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), (Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon), a black comedy-drama, by Australian Colin Higgins, Directed by counter-culture 'hippie' and film genius, Hal Ashby. The musical LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE does not have, in my estimation, the sincere gravitas of the artistic objectives of Higgins and Ashby that has turned HAROLD AND MAUDE into a cult hit - belatedly (by 1981, it had made back its cost and went into profit!) - of some respected standing.

Miss Sunshine, the musical, is content really to gain laughs at a fairly sustained superficial level of character and action, that did, however, appeal to the audience I was with, who embraced eagerly a parody of some of our present world's dilemmas - a sign of the times, perhaps, where distraction from our actual ridiculous world personalities and national/international tensions can be momentarily shunted from the centre of our daily concerns to give the possibility that we might all weather through the fire of our terrors by seizing any little ray of sunshine that might gleam through the smoke haze in our line of vision.

The company gathered by the Director, Deborah Jones, at the performance I saw - the last of the season - had acquired a surety of confidence with the material and delighted us with ease the characters and their adventures. Staged on a simple but effective Set Design by David Marshall-Martin - a Magritte blue with puffy white clouds studded/painted on the walls which hidden panels that could open and shut to surprise reveal characters in narrative comment and action - lit winningly by reliable Michael Schell, and Costumed amusingly by Bobbi Rickards. The company moved about the space with alacrity, delivering the choreography and movement from Virginia Ferris to enhance the joys of the piece.

The singing was, I should say, mostly 'valiant' as it was not always reached accurately in its execution by all. Though the musical Direction under the conductorship of Laura Heuston (also keyboard 2), with her band consisting of Thomas McCorquodale (Keyboard 1.), Riley Diesta (percussion on Thursday Friday) and Luke DiDio (percussion on Saturday and Sunday) was seamless and brightly pert.

I especially enjoyed our heroine Olive as performed by Ms Dzeparoski and the Mean Girls (of the pageant): Grace Ryan, Aneke Golowenko, and Ellacoco Hammer McIver (no, that is not a print misnomer it is Ella Coco as one word (!) and is followed by a Hammer. A stage name that won't be easily forgotten. Smart show-biz stuff.)

However, the scene stealer was John Grinston, given the role of Grandpa Edwin, who has a fantastic baggage of plot and character outrageousness, inherited from the film, which memorably Alan Arkin aggressively indulged in, which Mr Grinston with a similar, but different, ravenous appetite ingests, and does what is characterised in the business as 'eating the scenery' to make his character's mark in the show - I say this meaning it to be a positive compliment. The energy and focused concentration harnessed to a great integrity and theatrical intelligence gave Mr Grinston's performance a palpable halo of light - what a pity Grandpa died halfway through the show - I'm sure Mr Lapine and Mr Finn could have had the poetic vision/license to bring Edwin back, even as an incandescent spirit guiding Olive through the Beauty Pageant Dance that he had choreographed for her - I'm sure, really sure, that Grandpa Edwin was there beside her and the rest of the family in that last story offering - as vulgar as the dance may have been - was.

All in all this end of year production of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at the New Theatre fulfilled a brief as a distracting lightweight entertainment. Its not my cup-of-tea but then neither is Mr Finn's Award winning FALSETTOS. The New is following the trend in Sydney's theatre curating, banking on, the musical as a 'honey pot' to attract audience. Coming up soon is a short season of a stage version of a Judy Garland hit, MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (17th December-21st December) and early next year a brief showing of a musical adaption of George Orwell's mighty 1984! (8th January - 25th January.)

Think about it.

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