Driving On Sunshine

In the realm of quirky independent cinema, 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” holds a significant place. The uplifting story of a mismatched Albuquerque family on the open road combined inspired performances with a generous helping of whimsy to melt the hearts of moviegoers across the country.

Five years later, Tony winners William Finn and James Lapine (“Romance in Hard Times,” “Into the Woods”) boldly attempt to catapult the critical darling to Broadway heights in their musical adaptation, now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse.

“Little Miss Sunshine” follows the Hoover family: father and self-help entrepreneur Richard (Hunter Foster) and his wife Sheryl (Jennifer Thompson), a stressed-out bank teller forced to care for her brother Frank (Malcolm Gets) after his attempted suicide. With mute, Nietzsche-obsessed teenage son Dwayne (Taylor Trensch) and crude, cocaine-snorting Grandpa (Dick Latessa), the Hoovers must get youngest Olive (Georgi James) to a beauty pageant in Southern California. Time to roll out the VW bus.

“Sunshine” takes as many artistic liberties as one would expect of a lengthy musical adaptation of an understated Sundance slice-of-life. Lapine jumps at any opportunity to expand the film’s character backstories and minor subplots into full musical numbers.

Often, he’s successful. In the film, Grandpa — perverse and hilarious — adamantly advises Dwayne to “fuck a lot of women” while he’s still young. In the musical, the conversation becomes a hysterical, dirty-old-manthem, complete with a slew of sexual grievances from Grandpa’s past and an exhaustive use of the word “poontang.” Latessa’s spot-on rendition of Alan Arkin’s Academy Award- winning performance carries the weight of the play’s comedy single-handedly, making Grandpa’s impending death at the end of Act One that much more disappointing.

Occasionally, however, the musical detours are stretched too thinly to maintain much charm or believability. Miss California’s puzzling ode to bulimia is neither funny nor enlightening. Uncle Frank’s run-in with his ex-lover’s new fiancé vies desperately for laughs, but in doing so abandons the film’s heartbreaking realism (not to mention downplays Frank’s attempted suicide).

The script runs aground when it strays from the film entirely, attempting lame contemporary references (the pageant’s host takes a stab at Justin Bieber), incongruous social commentary (a family of presumed illegal immigrants scurry past the Hoovers in Arizona), and whatever the hell that pedophilic policeman at the end was supposed to be.

But “Little Miss Sunshine” never loses our attention, partly because there’s so much going on visually. David Korins’ stunning sets include a life-size yellow Volkswagen bus, a massive neon filling station and an elaborate recreation of Redondo Beach that employs a giant, rotating tent top.

The talented actors help to steer the play clear of tedium. Thompson and Foster shine as mom and dad, balancing three-dimensional character acting with impressive vocal range, while Gets proves particularly successful in reproducing Steve Carell’s wryly funny Uncle Frank.

Still, it’s easy to wonder whether this little dramedy ever belonged on the stage. Though the music is engrossing, the characters are most insightful and affecting when they aren’t singing. Richard Hoover’s grandiose opening seminar for his “Ten Steps for Success” program is amusing, yet fails to capture the depth of the desperate, unlikeable and entirely human patriarch of the film.

As a bit of light, smiling entertainment, “Little Miss Sunshine” is an achievement. It’s never as humorous or moving as its source material, but it never claims to be. The production’s content is an enjoyable homage to a great film, never transcending the sum of its excellent parts. (B-)