Jennifer Laura Thompson, Malcolm Gets, Georgi James,
Hunter Foster, and Taylor Trensch in Little Miss Sunshine
(© Craig Schwartz)
Jennifer Laura Thompson, Malcolm Gets, Georgi James,
Hunter Foster, and Taylor Trensch in Little Miss Sunshine
(© Craig Schwartz)
The yellow VW bus! That's what many people will come out humming from Little Miss Sunshine, the wonderful new James Lapine-William Finn musical version of the Oscar-winning film, currently having its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. Fortunately, the scenery -- by the brilliant David Korins -- is not the only thing worth humming. The show's creators -- aided by a star-studded cast -- have made dysfunction entertaining, endearing, and oh so much fun.

With the bus' roof and doors missing, and the hydraulic seats raising and lowering the actors, every minute of this road trip from New Mexico to California -- where eight-year old Olive Hoover (Georgi James) plans to participate in a beauty pageant -- is easily viewed. (The fact that the feet of the cast can be seen maneuvering the bus, a la Fred Flintstone, adds to the enjoyment.)

Lapine has taken Michael Arndt's film script and expanded it, giving us a few new scenes that add depth to the characters. His direction also smartly turns what could have been a claustrophobic enterprise into a quickly paced series of misadventures. Finn contributes his patented brand of quirky lyrics for songs that are not as much songs as they are underscored monologues.

Take the opening number, in which we meet Richard Hoover (Hunter Foster), a local Albuquerque motivational speaker trying to launch his "Ten Steps For Success" on a nationwide level. Step #3 is Leave Loserville, and that's exactly what Richard endeavors to do all the while encouraging his family to do the same.

His breadwinning spouse Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson) is becoming less and less supportive; teenage son Dwayne (Taylor Trensch) is in his 85th day of silence, his way of coping with the aftereffects of a plea bargain and his desire to get into the Air Force Academy; and Grandpa (Dick Latessa) is now living with his son after being expelled from his fourth retirement home because of his foul mouth, porn addiction and heroin habit. A new arrival to the clan is Frank (Malcolm Gets), Sheryl's gay brother, and a Proust scholar who attempted suicide when his graduate student lover deserted him for another scholar.

The casting is perfect, from the principals down to the chorus of six and even to the four tiny tots who form Olive's competition in the climactic contest. Among the staandouts: Carmen Ruby Floyd's gospel-infused voice sells the opening number, Zakiya Young's turn as the bulimic Miss California is a real treat, as is Eliseo Roman's performance pageant host Buddy Garcia.

Korins' superb sets are beautifully lit by lighting designer Ken Billington. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is pitch-perfect, while Jennifer Caprio's costumes define each character perfectly.

When Olive busts out her moves (lovingly taught by Grandpa) to the shock and horror of the contest judges, and is joined by her now very supportive family, a feeling of rapturous joy envelops the audience. Indeed, Sunshine has rarely felt so good!