By: David Sheward
It seemed like a perfect match: the edgy, off-center humor and compassion of songwriter William Finn and director-book author James Lapine (the Falsettos musicals, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A New Brain) and the dark underdog losers of the 2006 hit indie film comedy Little Miss Sunshine. But the adaptors and the source material for this new Off-Broadway musical at Second Stage Theatre never quite get in synch.
In Michael Arndt’s original screenplay, the woebegone family of misfits on its way to a toddlers-and-tiaras beauty pageant in a wrecked minivan was made up of lovable, heartbroken losers. In this adaptation, the characters are just whiny. That’s probably because Lapine’s limp book truncates the story to fit in Finn’s lengthy generic songs about how bad they all feel about their empty lives. It’s like a CliffsNotes (with notes) edition of the movie. Even the famous hilarious scene where the family gets the grandfather’s corpse past a traffic cop is missing. One of the few new elements is an unfunny running gag about a dictatorial GPS device nicknamed Map Bitch (get it?) Lapine has a few clever staging tricks employing Beowulf Boritt’s ingenious set and projection design, but they can’t overcome the shortcomings of the book and score.
The cast has the unfortunate task of filling the shoes of the film’s Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, and Alan Arkin who won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the randy grandpa. Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, and Rory O’Malley are among our brightest musical comedy stars, but even they have a tough time with the comparisons. David Rasche relies on sitcom clichés in the grandfather role. In two smaller parts, Jennifer Sanchez has no memories to compete with, so she emerges unscathed and riotously funny as a nasty grief counselor and bubble-headed beauty queen. She’s one of the few bright spots in an otherwise failed screen-to-stage transfer.
Nov. 14-Dec. 15. Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $62-84. (212) 246-4422. www.2st.com