Little Miss Sunshine: A Road Musical at Grand Opera House York

Cast of Little Miss Sunshine on stage sitting in yellow seats representing campervan, laughing and cheering
Image Credits: Manuel Harlan-Min

Press tickets courtesy of Grand Opera House York* in exchange for this review. Links marked with * are affiliate links: I earn a small commission from any sales made through these links, at no extra cost to you!

Expectations: 3/5

Reality: 2/5

Chronic illness-friendly: 4/5

Having grown up with the film Little Miss Sunshine being one of my firm favourites, I was thrilled when the musical adaptation and tour was announced. I would’ve been willing to travel far and wide to see it, so it was a real case of good fortune that the iconic yellow camper van made a stop in York at my local regional theatre.

Although I was looking forward to the performance, right from the beginning I had my concerns about how such an emotionally-intricate film would translate onto the stage. See, what makes the film Little Miss Sunshine so impactful isn’t the plot or storyline: a family on the brink of collapse pegging it 800 miles across the country in a campervan to enter their young daughter into the beauty pageant of her dreams. Instead, it’s all in the complexities of the individual characters and the relationships between them, and the overriding themes of winning, losing and the ominous grey area in-between.

So when you’re taking such nuanced and complex themes and trying to convey them on stage as a family-friendly musical, naturally you’re going to find yourself challenged. And although the small but talented cast were committed, I couldn’t help but feel that they were limited by the production. Each individual was only given the opportunity to be a pre-conceived, borderline stereotypical role, resulting in what I felt were only very one-dimensional performances with little to no character development, even with the inclusion of bonus scenes from the family’s past. Not only did this mean that emotionally investing in any of the characters was extremely difficult, in my eyes it also bypassed the original point of the concept: the dark, ironic and subtly twisted humour that originally put Little Miss Sunshine on critics’ radars.

Imelda Warren-Green and Ian Carlyle onstage singing dramatically into microphones
Image Credits: Manuel Harlan-Min

That said, I believe the small ensemble actually had more ample opportunities to shine, and these scenes led to some of my favourite moments of the whole performance. Imelda Warren-Green gave a glorious and entirely believable portrayal of hospital secretary Linda and former beauty queen Miss California, both of which resonated well with the audience, and Ian Carlyle as Buddy (the pageant host) also provided much-needed comic relief within his performance.

One element of the musical adaptation that I did really like in comparison to the film was the interpretation of Olive’s character. Being the youngest member of the dysfunctional Hoover family and an aspiring pageant queen, the musical portrayal of little Olive (Lily Mae Denman? Correct me if I’m wrong!) was much more assertive, extroverted and wise to the world than the somewhat more naïve and endearingly withdrawn portrayal on screen. In my eyes, representing Olive in this way was a smart decision from the producers, as it added a touch of feisty humour and translated much better onto the stage. However, it did mean that once again, deeply emotive moments from the film weren’t done the justice they deserved. The scene with Olive approaching her older brother Dwayne on the roadside, after his lifelong dreams have just crashed down all around him, is an unexpectedly yet deeply moving moment from the film, however once again a stab at humour was attempted on stage instead, meaning this moment wasn’t monopolised upon in the way it could have been.

Something I always take into account when seeing musical adaptations of films is what being on stage adds to the story, if anything. And the only thing I can think to compare Little Miss Sunshine with is Dirty Dancing The Musical, which you may remember I also *ahem* wasn’t a huge fan of, to say the least. In both cases, not only were there missed opportunities to take advantage of being on stage to do more creative things with the show, but the approach of the theatre productions actually took away from the original story. In this performance of Little Miss Sunshine, although I appreciated David Woodhead’s resourceful and creative set design and the talented onstage musicians under Arlene McNaught’s direction, even as an audience member I could see there was so much more scope for creativity within the production.

However, I’m happy to share that Little Miss Sunshine did become stronger as the performance progressed, somewhat redeeming itself with more entertainment value in the second half. Scenes from the pageant itself were frequently comedic, and a surprisingly impactful final moment on stage clearly had an emotive impact on the audience and concluded the performance on a high note.

L-R from front Laura Pitt-Pulford, Gabriel Vick, Gary Wilmot, Paul Keating, Lily Mae Denman and Sev Keoshgerian onstage pulling shocked faces from seats representing the yellow campervan
Image Credits: Manuel Harlan-Min

I suppose you could argue that going into a musical with pre-emptive thoughts from the film was always going to be problematic, but with a film as iconic as Little Miss Sunshine, it would be very difficult not to draw comparisons. And while there’s no doubt in my mind that the musical simply doesn’t hold a candle to the film, nor does the original translate particularly well on stage, that’s not to say that it cannot be appreciated as a work on its own: interestingly, many of my friends who hadn’t previously seen the film did really enjoy the musical.

Additionally, the stage adaptation has the advantage of being a much more family-friendly story, with elements that will appeal to all generations, despite the strong language and adult themes. This more universal appeal was also complemented by much more modern and updated references than in the 2006 film: additions such as silent Dwayne’s mobile phone instead of a notebook, and a casual name-dropping of the Kardashians along the way.

So, if you’re intrigued about the story of a turbulent family going through hell in trying to let their young daughter realise her dream in a world that simply hasn’t been too kind to her, it may well be that you’ll enjoy Little Miss Sunshine. And all things considered, who doesn’t love to indulge in a story of hope and people coming together in turbulent times?

Chronic Illness-Friendly Review

Content-wise, do be aware that self-harm and suicide in relation to one of the central characters are discussed briefly but graphically fairly early-on in Little Miss Sunshine. I think even quoting one of the lines here could be construed as triggering, so do feel free to message me if you’d like to be made aware of this.

Two disability-related instances from the show also stuck in my mind. The first was a few very-obviously satirical references to a pageant contestant’s ‘spastic colon’: a moment of humour clearly meant in jest and unlikely to cause offence. The second was more subtle but disappointingly telling: the dialogue having the characters joking that the only little girl who came last in the competition (behind Olive) ‘wore a leg brace’. Because *sarcasm* a disabled child couldn’t possibly be a beauty queen or have the same opportunities as non-disabled children, right? What a laughable idea!!! */sarcasm*. But again, the inclusion of these comments is only reflecting the ableist world we still live in. And we can save that conversation for another time.

Besides that, Little Miss Sunshine is a relatively safe choice for those sensitive to noise and light. There are no sudden or harsh special effects, and it’s only really some rotating disco lighting towards the end of the second half that mainly project onto the audience in the stalls that you may need to be wary of. You can find access information for the venue on the ATG website.

hand holding glass of prosecco from theatre box, with stage and Little Miss Sunshine backdrop visible in background

I’ve spent many an evening at Grand Opera House York, and so I also just wanted to acknowledge the really special treat that was in store for me during this performance. We were really kindly gifted a box and The Ambassador’s Experience, a completely surreal moment that I’ll be talking about in depth on my social media: do keep an eye out for it and join me in gushing over the loveliness of the Grand Opera House York team. You can also book a similar experience for yourself (or surprise a loved one!) on the ATG website.

I mention it here because even though the box wasn’t wheelchair-accessible and it was necessary to walk up and down flights of stairs to reach it, it struck me that such a location could potentially make for an alternative option for people with particular conditions. Although the view is limited in comparison to the stalls or dress circle, you do have plenty of legroom and ample space (possibly ideal for any additional medical equipment or a service animal?!), comfy chairs, and a bit more privacy than sitting on a row alongside other patrons.

But most importantly, you can spend the entire evening pretending you’re royalty and living your very best life. Gazing down at the auditorium with a Prosecco in hand, you’d never even know I had my Primark bargain bag and the Tesco food shop hidden next to my feet.

Image Credits: Manuel Harlan-Min

Press tickets courtesy of Grand Opera House York* in exchange for this review. Little Miss Sunshine is live at Grand Opera House York from Tuesday 4th-Saturday 8th June (get your tickets here!*), before continuing to tour the UK. Additional tour dates can be found here

See what’s on and book tickets for upcoming shows at Grand Opera House York on the ATG website*, and do let me know what you’re seeing next. If you enjoyed this review, you may enjoy my other stagey posts too!

Links marked with * are affiliate links: I earn a small commission from any sales made through these links, at no extra cost to you!

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