IN BRIEF Popular film to musical translation crashes a few gears along the way but is bolstered by excellent casting, which makes it worth the trip.
“The road to happiness is a bumpy ride” says the publicity. It’s a pretty apt description of the show, too.
Fans of the film will know what they’re getting- a musicalised version of the 2006 hit movie, which ran off-Broadway for two months in 2013. The story tells of the dysfunctional Hoover family travelling cross-country, overcoming all obstacles to get nervy but spunky little Olive to a beauty pageant, learning a few valuable life lessons along the way, some of them in song.
As for the show itself, its strongest pluses are its cast. Laura Pitt-Pulford and Gabriel Vick are perfect choices for the parents, strong actors with voices that are expressive and a joy to hear, although the one solo that each has makes you wish we could have heard more of them. Gary Wilmot squeezes all the juice out of his comedy number, which he does with all the assurance of a man with four decades of experience under his belt. The rest of the cast (all by casting expert Jane Deitch) are similarly just right, with suicidal Uncle Frank coolly underplayed by Paul Keating: Dwayne, the mute teenage son played nicely physically by Sev Keoshgerian and a joyful surprise in Imelda Warren-Green, who gives full rein to her comedy chops as the monotoned hospital adminstrator and in Act Two as Miss California, singing “Dolor”, a burlesque flamenco number (of such glorious deadpan overacting volume that she could have brought a plane in to land with those gestures) which had the audience roaring in delight.
The role of young Olive was played impressively and skilfully at our performance by Sophie Hartley-Booth, with just the right pitch on cute, troubled and effervescent aspects of her character. The audience we were with found it easy to warm to her, and it has to be a hard heart that does not cheer her character on to the finale.
The cast were just great, and they boosted that material every which way they could, assisted no doubt by direction from Mehmet Ergen in what may be his first musical? The real issue here is what this cast have to work with, the book and music.
The script keeps hiccuping along in Act One, but to its credit, improves pace-wise in Act Two. The songs are very variable, but each character’s main individual song came across very well, where it was good to be able to hear the quality of the individual voices. The ensemble numbers didn’t really score for me, all being a bit too distracting and messy.
As to the band, all good musicians, but five just wasn’t enough. The sound created felt very flimsy, even when boosted by group vocals in front.
Finally, the set. Its minimal, as you’d expect with a show going out on tour from a fringe venue, but it had a revolve which at least helped improve the sightlines by very often rotating the van in which the characters spend around 40% of the show. However, I’d imagine the designer David Woodhead had to work really hard to get what we saw on stage to work as well as it did in this auditorium. The “van” is really low-tech, but you forget about it after a while. The unforgiving confines of the Arcola are deeply unsuited to any end-on show due to its stage being seated on three sides (thrust). But of course the rest of the tour is for regular auditoria so it will undoubtedly sit better in those settings. Here, many seats felt restricted. Sitting to the end of one of the flanks, I got quite used to eyeing the back of someone’s head. But that’s the space, it’s no-one in the show’s fault.
It will fare better in more conventional auditoria that make up the rest of the tour, and the design will no doubt be opened out to incorporate a lot more flexible stage space than the tiny Arcola can offer.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is clearly a big deal for the Arcola. Seat prices are reaching £30 for the first time I can remember. This is (to my knowledge) the first co-production with global brand Selladoor who definitely know about touring small to mid-scale shows. So it’s a big leap of faith into a better future from potential returns coming back to benefit the venue. I would imagine they have stretched every financial sinew to even be able to pull this off in the first place.
I certainly hope the leap will work. The audience I saw at the show are most definitely not the Arcola audiences I have sat with many times before, so they are expanding their audience reach with this offering. But this expansion might benefit from a level of caution; to be honest, to charge £5 for a very skimpy programme makes me a little uncomfortable as a paying audience member at a London fringe venue (albeit an important one).
So, back to the show. The first act is pretty stop/start, it gets better in the second, the cast are excellent and worth the trip, but the solos are the thing that get it to the finish line. Enjoy the cast and you’ll have a good night out.