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La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere “road trip musical”
Okay, all those who loved the 2006 movie, “Little Miss Sunshine,” raise hands (that would be just about everybody). Well, here comes the musical theater version, having its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
The Oscar-winning film certainly appealed to Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning director and writer James Lapine , whose past collaborations include two Stephen Sondheim musicals: “Into the Woods” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” But when it comes to “quirky,” which is how he describes the characters in “Sunshine,” his first thought is composer/lyricist William Finn, with whom he collaborated on “Falsettos” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
In a recent media sneak-preview, Lapine described the show as “a very free adaptation, not slavish at all to the movie. We invented scenes and developed characters in the way movies can’t. It’ll be a very different experience.”
The great challenge was “ theatricalizing a road trip.” The creators were adamant about not doing it “high-tech,” with video projections. Instead, they’re going to “change the geography of the set with lights and texture.” And at least four incarnations of the famous yellow VW van that the wacky Hoover family takes from New Mexico to California, for chubby little 10 year-old Olive’s first (and last) beauty pageant. There’s a full-scale bus, one that’s half-size, 3/4 size and a little remote-controlled version .
“It’s all seen through the whimsy of a ten year- old’s mind,” explains Lapine .
That 10 year-old will be played by 10 year-old Georgi James, a New Jersey resident and recent member of the Broadway cast of “Billy Elliot.”
Tony nominee Hunter Foster (“ Urinetown ,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Producers”) portrays her father, Richard, the no-nonsense motivational speaker who agrees to the comically disastrous journey.
“Richard has the weight of the world on his shoulders,” says Foster. “He’s trying to be a good father, son and husband — and keep his family and marriage together.”
Foster, who admits to a “complicated” relationship with his own father, notes that Richard has “a complicated relationship with his father and his kids.” And then he has a death to deal with, and a body-theft.
“Bill and James are brilliant,” Foster says. “Every time things could dip into over-sentimentality, they temper it with a joke.”
He considers Lapine , who’s directed two other shows at the Playhouse (a revival of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1985 and his own “Luck, Pluck and Virtue” in 1993) and one at the Old Globe (the premiere of “Into the Woods,” 1996), to be “one of the smarter directors I’ve ever worked with – and I’ve worked with almost everyone!”
Foster also loves the score. “There’s some really great music, and the lyrics are smart and surprising. There’s a seamless transition from dialogue to lyrics. You don’t want it to sound like a song; more like a person’s inner thoughts.
“And of course, it’s a really great story — about a dysfunctional family that learns how to become a family again. The symbolism of pushing a bus is learning how to co-exist; they have to hold each other up and help each other. A lot of TV and movies are cynical about family. This is heartwarming, touching, moving. It’s wonderful to see a family come together instead of falling apart.
“This becomes an emotional journey, not just a physical one,” Foster continues. “And we’ve got a great cast. We’ve become our own little dysfunctional family.”
Life imitates art once again. Cue the music.
“Little Miss Sunshine” is currently in previews (through March 26). The show opens officially on March 4 and continues through March 27, in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse.
Performances are Tues-Wed at 7:30pm, Thurs-Sat at 8pm, Sun at 7pm, Sat-Sun at 2pm.
Tickets — $44-$100 — are available at 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org