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Musical review: Little Miss Sunshine

Battle of swerves:
The cast including
Laura Pitt-Pulford
and Gabriel Vick
(front) on their
journey across
America PICTURE: MANUEL HARLAN

REVIEW

Little Miss Sunshine

Arcola Theatre, London, then touring ★★★✩✩

IT WAS always going to be a hard ask to turn a universally adored road movie into an equally loved musical — and James Lapine and William Finn’s adaptation of Oscar winner Little Miss Sunshine can’t compete with the original.

Soon to embark on a UK tour, the Broadway show is a narratively faithful rendering in which a family drive daughter Olive to California for a beauty pageant.

Dreaming big: Lily Mae Denman as Olive

What motors the story is the comic poignancy of Olive’s sunny outlook against a family defined by anything but. Her uncle attempted suicide; her doomy, Nietzsche-reading brother won’t speak; her dad’s latest business venture bombed. The family’s prospects, and Olive’s chance of winning, are as clapped-out as the van they half push across America.

Mehmet Ergen’s production underplays the melancholy and is full of big performances — Gary Wilmot’s priapic, coke-snorting grandpa, Laura Pitt-Pulford’s exasperated Sheryl and Gabriel Vick’s uptight father Richard. A terrific Sophie Hartley-Booth — one of three playing Olive — finds the right pitch between sass and wholesomeness.

Ergen underscores the gruesomeness of child pageants without selling short Olive’s dreams. But both story and characters feel cramped, and he hasn’t at all solved the question of how to fit a road film on a rather small stage. The songs are also a problem, adding little and leaving even less of a trace.

It’s very funny in places — including a glorious scene at the pageant — but where the film was off-beat, this is simply middle of the road.