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‘Little Miss Sunshine’ Curdles; Marsalis Hearts Sondheim: Stage

November 14, 2013

'Little Miss Sunshine'

Hannah Nordberg, center, plays Olive, a girl who enters a pre-teen beauty contest, in "Little Miss Sunshine." The off-Broadway musical was adapted from the movie by James Lapine and William Finn. Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Hartman Group PR via Bloomberg

For most of its 100 minutes, “Little Miss Sunshine” struggles to get the tone right before puttering to a stall.

It’s about an 800-mile road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California. Seven-year-old Olive has won a spot in a beauty pageant, and the financially strapped, barely functional Hoover family has pledged to get her there in time despite the recalcitrant VW minibus that is their mode of transport.

Olive’s kin include her loser dad, beleaguered mother, a teenage brother who’s taken a vow of silence, her gay uncle (a suicidal Proust scholar) and her adored grandfather, a drug-addled crank who has been her doting mentor.

Making sport of America’s obsession with sexualizing children and with selling stuff is nothing new, but the 2006 movie skillfully mixed bemused social commentary with a keen sense of family dynamics.

Not so the musical, which has songs by William Finn and a book by James Lapine, who also directs. On Beowulf Boritt’s swooping set, the humor curdles and an estimable cast never engages our sympathy.

Stephanie J. Block struggles to make the mother more than a worrywart; Will Swenson seems at sea as the overwrought father and David Rasche is miscast as the grandfather, a role that won Alan Arkin an Oscar.

A highway restroom scene involving the uncle (Rory O’Malley) and two other men is just tawdry. And the finale, which needs to be dazzling in its awfulness, is merely pallid. Finn, who writes brilliant urbane songs, seems out of his element in the Southwest.

The bright spots are the kids: Dour Logan Rowland as the silent Dwayne and Hannah Nordberg’s endearing Olive.

Through Dec. 15 at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-246-4422; Rating: **1/2


It’s been a great month for Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The group’s All Stars are appearing nightly in the unheralded smash “After Midnight.”

Now, through this weekend only at City Center, Marsalis and the band are backing one of the best revues of Stephen Sondheim’s songs ever assembled.

The Encores! presentation is titled “A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair.” Songs with no Gotham connection get one.

“There Are Giants in the Sky,” for example, from “Into the Woods,” is sung in front of worms-eye-view projections of skyscrapers.

The soignee staging by John Doyle has singing characters suggestively confront their younger selves, played by dancers. Think “Follies.”

The draw is Bernadette Peters, decanted into a red cocktail dress, singing “Broadway Baby” and other numbers for which she’s a bit long in the tooth.

Peters is joined by the veteran Norm Lewis, the rising-star Jeremy Jordan and the outstanding newcomer Cyrille Aimee. The dances, by Parker Esse, are sexy and Ken Billington’s lighting is exceptionally atmospheric.

Best of all are the superb arrangements by various contributors, including Marsalis. A standout is Ted Nash’s “Send in the Clowns,” presented as a torchy instrumental.

Through Nov. 17 at N.Y. City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include movies and New York Weekend.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeremy Gerard in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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