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GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP: ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ scores all around on endearing, summertime fun

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Thalian Association is ready for summer! And they’re taking audiences on a road trip with the musical “Little Miss Sunshine” by William Finn and James Lapine, currently being staged at the Erin E. McNeill Fine Arts Center at Cape Fear Academy.

A FAMILY AFFAIR: The Hoover family takes a cross-country trip in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to learn about love, fear, courage and togetherness. Photo courtesy of Jim Bowling and Josh Zieseniss

A FAMILY AFFAIR: The Hoover family takes a cross-country trip in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to learn about love, fear, courage and togetherness. Photo courtesy of Jim Bowling and Josh Zieseniss

The Hoover family is in distress. They are eating KFC for dinner again, as a wily Grandpa (J.R. Rodriguez) notes (complains). Mom, Sheryl (Emily Grahm), just picked up her brother Frank (Beau Mumford) from the psych ward after he slashed his wrists. Honestly, KFC was all she could manage. Dad, Richard (Michael Laurincella), has no concrete help to offer, only platitudes from his own self-help blog. Their two children, Dwayne (Kellen Hanson) and Olive (Chloe Moore), have responded in vastly different ways to the obvious crises of the family. Dwayne has stopped speaking to any of them—literally, he has taken a vow of silence. Olive, meanwhile, is determined to put a smile on everyone’s face and has wrangled a spot in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant in California. Somehow, it all culminates with the most normal and dysfunctional family taking a road trip from New Mexico to California in Grandpa’s “hippie van” to get Olive to the pageant on time.

It is a 30-plus-year-old VW van. Of course it breaks down. Part of the conceit of the show is they have to work together to get the van to start. (I’m going to let you in a secret as the owner and devotee of a ‘67 VW bus: The real gift of VWs is you always need a little help from your friends. You have to learn you can’t do it alone.)

The real question at hand: How come neither parent has asked Olive anything about her talent portion of the pageant? Instead, Grandpa is in charge. Rodriguez’s version of Gramps is the hippie every kid would dream of having. He’s so funny and Rodriguez nails it—not just the lines written for him, which are hysterical, but his delivery is spot on, too. “The Happiest Guy in the Van,” one of his two big songs, is advice to his grandson on how to get laid. With complete and total sincerity, he brings down the house, advising his high-school-aged grandson to have as much sex as possible. It is actually the sincerity that makes it funny—the lyrics are hysterical and embarrassing anyway. Rodriguez sells it as legitimate advice instead of camp and that’s why it works.

His other big number, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” is an incredibly tender and sweet ode to his very nervous granddaughter. Together, Rodriguez utilizes the songs to create a wonderfully human and earthy character every family should have.

In spite of having the most supportive grandpa on earth, Olive still has the same doubts of any child. In her head, they manifest as mean pageant contestants, played by Baylee Allen, Ila Lee Monicel, Alona Murrell, and Natalia Rohena. In “Poor Olive,” they sing and dance their way into the very pit of the audience’s stomach—saying all the nasty things parents must worry about late at night. As mean girls, they get an A+.

Yes, the family is on their way to a kids’ beauty pageant. Once they arrive, things go from strange to worse. Buddy (Jordan Hathaway), the beauty pageant director from hell, gets through life because his assistant, Kirby (Joshua Zieseniss) smooths away the rough edges. Buddy has found the place he belongs and, along with Miss California (Samantha Mifsud), they put on a show like none other. When not destroying any hope for the future of Western civilization with their treatment of young girls, the two turn in jaw-dropping performances. They are both wonderful singers and really sell their songs with great gusto and determination. It is laugh-inducing—only because the delivery is so fabulously over-the-top. “Little Miss Sunshine” theme song would be impossible to surpass if it were not followed by Olive’s actual talent in the pageant.

The road trip, the pageant … it’s all a back drop for a family trying to find itself. Perhaps what makes the show feel relatable is they don’t find answers. Mumford’s Frank is still a wreck, with no discernible professional or romantic future. He’s figured out a few things about himself along the way—and sung great songs. What I like about his performance is, even though he can see he’s making baby steps, he isn’t “fine.” His character hasn’t put his life back together—just found a first handhold on the ladder. And there is still a very long climb ahead.

By contrast the breakthrough Dwayne has is a wonderfully extreme teenage-driven drama. Hanson spends most of the early part of the show listening and reacting.  When he does break through (and break down) to speak, he still hasn’t really found himself or anything else. What he has been all along—Olive’s big brother—is what he is most needed for in the world. And that’s fine, except he needs to figure out an identity that will let him become an adult. Hanson has a lovely voice and is no novice to the stage, but this might be my favorite performance of his to date.

Moore’s Olive is a perfectly normal little girl, with a loving but troubled family. She’s trying to find a way to get her parents’ approval. Moore’s courage with the beauty pageant should not be undervalued; it takes strength to face fears and those mean girls.

Graham and Lauricella play two people trying to hold together a marriage that is tenuous at best. Do they love each other enough? Could they even afford to get divorced if they wanted to? Together they paint a portrait of people who have never really known what they wanted—maybe that’s been the problem all along. In a family of such big personalities and crises, it takes two talented performers to make their lingering, creeping disappointment of their own dreams and in each other so palpable.

Director Chandler Davis assembled Ben Fancy and Jen Iapalucci to bring the visual world of the Hoover family to life. The detail in the kitchen at the beginning is really astounding. Props Mistress Carolyn Colby really outdid herself. Iapalucci’s costumes shine in the pageant scenes, of course. Though Grandpa’s fanny pack and beret are great. But the ruffly front blue tux of the pageant director and the absurd costumes of the contestants—plus Olive’s costume—must have had Iapalucci cackling with delight.

Fancy has to create “The Great American Road Trip.” I admit: I wanted a VW bus on stage. I did. But it wasn’t possible and what Fancy came up with works for the purposes of the show and the needs of the performers. VW desires aside, in addition to the family home, the hospital and motel sets are great. Still, everything is dwarfed by the pageant.  If you don’t love mylar streamer curtains hung from the yellow proscenium that lights up, there is a total lack of irony in your soul or comprehension of “kitsch” as it relates to American culture.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is wonderful, outside the box, creative, very funny and very smart.  Davis clearly had fun with the show. It’s impossible not to see yourself on stage, in many phases of life—from fear to courage to love. It’s all there and moving.

Little Miss Sunshine
Through June 30, Thurs.-Sat.,
7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Academy,
3900 S. College Rd.
Tickets: $17-$25

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