At the height of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck sent the Joad family heading west in a clapped-out truck in pursuit of an American Dream.
We watched them on this stage only recently.
Eighty-odd years on, it’s the Hoover family’s turn to take to the highway in this musical adaptation of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine.
Adapted by James Lapine (Into the Woods, Falsettos) and featuring songs by William Finn (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), Little Miss Sunshine takes us on a 500-mile ride from New Mexico to California with the fractious Hoover clan in a rusty VW Microbus with a busted clutch.
The Joads were escaping poverty of the most grinding sort, nothing less than starvation. The Hoovers, by contrast, are directed westward by very 21st century problems – malnutrition of the soul if you like, brought on by insecure and meaningless work, a stale marriage and an addled ambition to become a self-help guru.
Their overriding aim is to get their square-peg daughter Olive to a beauty and talent pageant and have her win it. But the future of the entire family seems to be riding on her doing so.
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Deborah Jones’s production isn’t a highly polished one but once your expectations have adjusted, its rough edges suit the never-say-die mood of the story being told. Jones pushes the story along at a decent clip, too, which is important given the race-against-the-clock premise and the fact that we all know where this story is heading. Each half of the show occupies less than an hour.
Sound quality is an issue though, with live music (played offstage on two keyboards and a drum kit) sounding weak and boxy and the cast sometimes struggling to deliver the lyrics clearly during the show’s busier passages. They fare much better in the solo songs that open up the characters’ interior lives.
The book scenes are delivered strongly and the performances are appealing, led by Martin Grelis and Fiona Pearson as Olive’s unhappy parents Richard and Sheryl.
Julian Ramundi is dryly funny as Sheryl’s brother Frank, a suicidal scholar of Proust. Christopher O’Shea glowers convincingly as Dwayne, a Nietzsche-obsessed teenager observing a months-long vow of silence.
John Grinston is amusing as the hippie grandpa whose advice to the younger generation peaks with, “Don’t go near drugs until you’re on social security.” (Concerned parents please note, the role is nowhere near as sweary as it is in the movie.)
There are a couple of notable minor turns from Sarah Furnari as a grumpy hospital bureaucrat, and Gavin Leahy as the show pony pageant host. Keira Dzeparoski is a sharp performer and her sparky, offbeat Olive confidently holds the spotlight.