Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel’s reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Pictured: (l-r) Sophie Kaegi and Kyle Klein. Photo by Joel Maisonet.
By Rachel Weinberg
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, now in a regional premiere production at Chicago Theatre Workshop, heartily captures the quirky personality of the 2006 Academy Award winning film upon which it’s based. Writing team William Finn and James Lapine (known for their previous collaborations on FALSETTOS and A NEW BRAIN) have keenly musicalized some of the film’s most oddball moments. In that great tradition of musical theater, Finn has cleverly located all the song buttons in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and all the numbers fall neatly in service of the narrative. Under Maggie Portman’s direction (she also choreographed), this production moves along at a brisk and hilarious pace. Nick Sula provides musical direction that makes nice use of few musicians.
Finn and Lapine chart the musical course of the eccentric Hoover family and the plucky young Olive, who is given a last-minute opportunity to compete in the “Little Miss Sunshine” junior pageant in California. While the Hoovers seem to be hanging by a thread, they hop into Grandpa’s old Volkswagen van and are off to make the pageant. Robert Groth and Jenniffer Thusing’s modest set design largely employs three black boxes to convey the movement of the van, along with a backdrop that lights up different settings depending on scene locations. The set also includes a van cut-out, though it oddly has windows cut too high for the actors to be visible while seated.
Under Portman’s direction, the production enhances the comic moments that Finn and Lapine already capitalize on in the show’s writing. “How Have I Been?” finds Olive’s depressed Uncle Frank (the perfectly wry George Keating), recently home from a treatment center, in an encounter with his ex-lover Joshua (Connor Katy) and his professor rival Larry Sugarman (David Besky) at a rest stop restroom in Arizona. Finn makes brilliant use of the musical interior monologue here, in which Frank’s sung inner thoughts greatly contrast with the put-together appearance he hopes to convey. Keating elegantly sashays through the choreographed chaos. While Finn and Lapine effectively use song to advance LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE’s storyline, it must be noted that none of the individual melodies are all that memorable.
Though not memorable on their own, it’s worth noting that the songs are excellent devices. In an ingenious addition from the film, Finn includes a chorus of singing mean girls, here played by Chayce Davis, Jersie Joniak, and Tatum Pearlman (they later essay Olive’s pageant competitions in Martha Hornbostel’s perfectly outrageous costumes). These three become a Greek chorus of bullies for Olive, the nagging voices in her ear that try to bring her down. It’s a feature that works well, simultaneously funny and a little bit heartbreaking.
Fortunately, Olive is determined not to let her tormentors bring her down—and Sophie Kaegi brings down the house herself as Olive. Kaegi may be young, but she commands the stage like a much more experienced actor and belts like nobody’s business. She’s backed by other talented family members who bring out the quirks of the Hoover family. While he’s not the strongest vocalist of the bunch, Ken Rubenstein lands the line between lecherous and loving as Olive’s debaucherous Grandpa. He shows Olive some rather unconventional pageant dance moves that are displayed in her pageant number “Shake Your Badonkadonk” (to say more would be to spoil one of the most hilarious moments). The clarion-voiced Sharyon A. Culberson astounds as Olive’s mother Sheryl, and Greg Foster and Kyle Klein II display formidable vocal chops as Olive’s father Richard and brother Dwayne.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is an eccentric and unabashedly hilarious joyride—it’s without a doubt one of the funniest musicals I’ve seen in recent memory. And while Finn hasn’t written the most commanding score, he—and here, Portman’s cast—winningly embody the kooky spirit of the Hoover family through song.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE runs through June 4th. For more information visit chicagotheatreworkshop.org.