Much like an old yellow hippie-era VW bus, the musical version of Little Miss Sunshine now playing at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre struggles to keep its engine running and never quite proves ready for the highway. Writer-director James Lapine remains almost slavishly faithful to the 2006 indie sensation, including planting his main characters in that VW bus (actually, six onstage chairs on wheels) for a big chunk of the show’s 100 intermissionless minutes. But he and veteran composer William Finn (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) never manage the trickier task of fully adapting the material to a new medium and justifying its existence on stage.
Yes, the pint-size beauty-pageant contestant Olive (Hannah Nordberg) gets a snippet of an ”I wish” song early on, while her coke-sniffing grandpa (a raspy David Rasche) has a somewhat amusing number dispensing comically inappropriate advice to her tightlipped teenage brother, Dwayne (Logan Rowland): ”Be bold, be crass, be unafraid. / Get off your ass and go get laid.” But too often the tunes play like bland, forgettable place-holders for meaningful character development, and many of them are over in less than a minute. (It’s no wonder that Finn reprises the show’s best number, a prettily melodic ballad called ”Something Better, Better Happen,” not once but twice.)
Since the show lasts about as long as the original movie, the creators constantly seem to be in a headlong rush to get to the next signature moment from the film, even if the stage version hasn’t sufficiently set the scene. When the dad (Will Swenson, looking very out of place) suggests that Olive forgo ice cream because she’s ”starting to get a little tummy,” the moment rings particularly false — he hasn’t really been established as a win-at-all-cost jerk and Nordberg’s Olive has been portrayed as more of a quirky outsider waif.
In a production that is remarkably miscast in several major roles, there are still a few standouts: Stephanie J. Block sings sweetly as the mom (thought her part is as underwritten here as it was in the film); Jennifer Sanchez is a hilarious scene stealer in two small roles as a hospital counselor and a grown-up pageant queen; and Rory O’Malley wrests a few chuckles as Olive’s adorably daft, suicidal Proust-scholar uncle. They do their best to push Little Miss Sunshine into gear, but this musical sputters to life only for brief, occasional bursts. C